transliteracies: research in the technological, social, & cultural practices of online reading 06.16.2005, 10:06 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Bob's post last week about changing patterns of media consumption kicked off an interesting discussion, one that leads up perfectly to the "Transliteracies" conference we are attending this weekend at UC Santa Barbara.
Alan Liu, director of the Transliteracies project, posted this response, which very elegantly lays out some of the important questions. He's allowed me to re-post it here..
BEGIN: The relationship between "browsing" and the "sheer volume" of information is complicated. To start with, I think there is much to be gained in complicating our usually uniform concepts of "browsing" (all shallow, fragmented, attention-deficient) and "volume" ("sheer," as in a towering, monolithic cliff).
We get a sense of the hidden complexity I indicate if we think historically. Below is a passage from Roger Chartier -- the leading scholar in the "history of the book" field -- that should give us pause about making any quick associations between browsing and today's information glut:
"Does this reaction toward the end of the [18th] century indicate a consciousness that reading styles had changed, that the elites in western Europe had passed from intensive and reverent reading to a more extensive, nonchalant reading style, and that such a change called for correction? . . . In the older style: (1) Readers had the choice of only a few books, which perpetuated texts of great longevity. (2) Reading was not separated from other cultural activities such as listening to books read aloud time and again in the bosom of the family, the memorization of such texts . . . , or the recitation of texts read aloud and learned by heart. (3) The relation of reader to book was marked by a weighty respect and charged with a strong sense of the sacred character of printed matter. (4) The intense reading and rereading of the same texts shaped minds that were habituated to a particular set of references and inhabited by the same quotations. It was not until the second half of the eighteen century in Germany and the beginning of the nineteenth century in New England that this style of reading yielded to another style, based on the proliferation of accessible books, on the individualization of the act of reading, on its separation from other cultural activities, and on the descralization of the book. Book reading habits became freer, enabling the reader to pass from one text to another and to have a less attentive attitude toward the printed word, which was less concentrated in a few privileged books." -- Roger Chartier, "Urban Reading Practices, 1660-1770," in his The Cultural Uses of Print in Early Modern France, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 222-24
It's pretty certain that browsing in the face of sheer volume were deep habits of literacy (specifically, of high print literacy). By contrast, one might ask: who read so intensely and deeply -- to instance the extreme -- that they only really read one book? There were probably just three classes of such people: the very poor (I remembe r, but can't find at present, an essay by Chartier about people in the past who owned just one book, which was found on their body after a coach accident in Paris), the extremely pious (who read the Bible), or the "genius" author. (Think of Blake, for example: no matter how many books he read, he really only had one or two books on his mental bookshelf: the Bible and Milton.) By contrast, everyone else browsed.
Mass literacy in the twentieth century, perhaps, may be a phenomenon of browsing. Think of Reader's Digest. After my family immigrated to the U.S. in my childhood, we were a kind of microcosm of assimilation (into English literacy) in this regard. There were two major investments in books in my household: the Reader's Digest series of condensed books (a kind of packaged browsing) and The World Book encyclopedia (a veritable lesson in reading as browsing-cum-volume). I drank deeply from both founts as a child, since these were the main books in the house. I was intense in my browsing.
So now let's snap back to the present and the act of browsing cyber- or multi-media volumes of information. I've started a project (combining humanists, social scientists, and computer scientists) called Transliteracies to look into "online reading." It's my hypothesis that there are hidden complexities and intelligences in low-attention modes of browsing/surfing that we don't yet know how to chart. Google, after all, is making a fortune for algorithms enacting this hypothesis. Or to cite a historical googler: Dr. Johnson, sage of the Age of Reason, was famous for "devouring" books just by browsing them instead of reading "cover to cover." (To allude to the titles of the two serial magazines he was involved with, he would have called browsing Rambling or Idling [The Rambler, The Idler.)
Just as "browsing" is complex, so I think that there are hidden complexities in the notion of "sheer volume." Some of the digital artists I know -- e.g., George Legrady, Pockets Full of Memories -- are "database artists" whose work asks the question, in essence: what happens to the notion of art when we gaze not at one work in rapt wonder but several thousand works -- when, in other words, the "work" is "volume"? What if quantity, in other words, was a matter of quality? Aren't there different kinds of "volume," some more intelligent, beautiful, kinder, humane (not to mention efficient and flexible, the usual postindustrial desiderata) than others?
I'd better stop, since this comment is too long. As Blake said about volume: "Enough! or too much."
Gary Frost on June 16, 2005 8:09 PM:
Somehow it doesn't seem important that various readers read differently and that, with more or less content at hand, readers will adopt efficient approaches to their reading behavior.
In my view the taxonomy of screen based reading behaviors contrasted with print based reading behaviors is not related to extensive vs. intensive characteristics. The distinction is more distinctive. Screen based presentation mimics each of the three parent reading modes frequently producing a synthetic fourth reading mode. We had an inkling of this in MTV and phones with texting keyboards, but the web has matured this composite reading mode. There is a
diagram of the relations and other discussion at futureofthebook.com.
gary frost on June 17, 2005 11:17 PM:
A taxonomy of reading behaviors, not format technologies or content genres, offers a direct approach to futures for the book. Such a discipline of the sociology and history of reading and the study of reading behaviors has extended its relevance in amazing ways. Just one recent example is the extension of the issues of expatriation and repatriation of sacred and devotional goods preserved in museums and archives.
While federal NAPRA legislation gives voice to native American claims, a smaller step would validate that type of claim to devotional books in general. In the latter case we deal, not with expatriation by a new dominant culture, but with a cloistering of goods from a devotional to an academic environment within a single culture. By extension, the precept of expatriation and repatriation of reading behaviors verges on a general approach to transitions from oral to written, from writing to print and from print to screen.
Some further implications of the centrality of reading behaviors to the future of books are included in these publications;
Johns, Adrian, "The past, present and future of the scientific book", Books and the Sciences in History, Cambridge University press, 2000. (E)
Johns, Adrian, "The physiology of reading" in Books and the Sciences in History, Cambridge University Press, 2000. (E)
Cormack, Bradin and Mazzio, Carla, Book Use, Book Theory, 1500-1700 Regenstein Library, University of Chicago Press, 2005.
gary frost on June 18, 2005 12:11 PM:
The link previous didn't take. To see the diagram "Cascade of Reading Modes" go to http://www.futureofthebook.com/pictures/viewer$609