sven birkerts on the kindle 03.06.2009, 1:30 PM
posted by bob stein
The Atlantic just posted a short piece by Sven Birkerts, Resisting the Kindle, voicing his concerns over what is being lost when reading moves from page to screen. The challenge is to take the kernel of truth in what Birkerts says and to figure out how to extend our notion of electronic documents to include the deep contextualization he refers to.
Posted by bob stein on March 6, 2009 1:30 PM
bowerbird on March 6, 2009 4:45 PM:
why does cyberspace pay any attention to this guy?
make him eat his own dogfood, for crying out loud.
don't link to him. let him see -- precisely -- exactly
how far his shit gets when it exists _only_ in print...
unless you're a masochist, and you like being whipped.
bob stein on March 6, 2009 8:22 PM:
because when you're in the midst of a transition from one dominant mode of communication to another, it's a good idea to figure out what aspects of the dying mode we want to bring with us into the future.
bowerbird on March 7, 2009 12:14 AM:
ok, that's a good point. but how did that article help us do that?
i'm serious. i read it, carefully, and found absolutely no evidence.
no arguments or logic. just assertions, and simplistic ones at that.
he has a fetish with the packaging, giving no credence to content.
ok, fine, it's only human to confuse the two, as they come together.
but it just means tomorrow's kids will fetishize the electronic tools
which deliver that same literary content to _them_; it doesn't mean
they won't be able to _appreciate_ that content one iota less deeply.
(and honestly, it's insulting to their intelligence to imply otherwise.)
there might be something "magical" about ink-on-paper, but if so,
let's see someone _prove_ it, instead of simply acting like it's true.
otherwise, electricity and wireless transfer are more magical to me,
especially when they bring the legacy of our entire literary history
to _everyone_, instead of reserving it for the too-spoiled rich kids.
now, if i'm missing something in his arguments, there or elsewhere,
do please enlighten me. but as far as i can see, sven has no game...
_except_ that he gives lots of bloggers something to blog about...
Lee on March 7, 2009 5:18 AM:
Bowerbird, I don't think we should dismiss Birkerts' concerns lightly, and in fact I share them although I publish online - and fully intend to continue doing so. One of the reasons, in fact, that I release my novels in serial format is to encourage a slower reading, and place them in a newly revitalised context of the nineteenth-century serial (think Dickens). Context is real, and it is crucial: Birkerts doesn't get that wrong. And the fragmentation of which he warns is real enough, and I agree that it will ultimately signal a vastly different cultural landscape, in some ways better, in some ways perhaps worse. But since the vast majority of people have never heard of Wallace Stevens in any case, and certainly never read a single line of his, I for one am glad that I can discover poets online from a single reference and go on to read much more of their work.
Andrew W on March 7, 2009 2:18 PM:
Happy to say I studied with Sven for a semester several years ago, and he was just as concerned with these issues then--before the Kindle and before blogs were commonplace--as he is today. My criticism of his argument, both then and now, is that his idea of "context" is surprisingly limited: for centuries, books were literally walled off--it was only in the 20th century that the context Sven laments losing even came about.
Meanwhile, the Kindle and similar products may very well multiply "context" by linking any title to its reviews, related books, academic criticism, author tours.
It does change the way people read. It obliterates the tactile element. It challenges annotation practices. It makes every book a book-on-tape. But Sven doesn't make the case for the Kindle hurting context.
Lee on March 8, 2009 2:35 AM:
And here's another lucid response to Birkerts:
bowerbird on March 8, 2009 7:19 PM:
"contextualization" is fancy, and -- at 17 letters -- _weighty_...
plus you must admire any word that starts off as a simple noun,
flirts a while with adjective status before morphing into a verb,
then circles the bases to home plate to become a noun again...
but what does the word _mean_ here?
seriously. sven isn't very clear. and, to be perfectly fair to him,
he doesn't use the 17-letter version, in the linked article anyway.
but he certainly does hover around it...
and what he does say -- actually say -- is this:
> I see in the turning of literal pages—pages bound
> in literal books—a compelling larger value
he thinks there's something magical about the paper itself.
sorry, but that's just silly. it's the _content_ that's important.
> The book is part of a system. And that system stands for
> the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and
> to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly.
and again, a fetishization of container, as opposed to contents.
it's as if he was telling us that, unless you drink your coca-cola
out of _glass_bottles_, you cannot really appreciate it properly,
that it won't quench your thirst, and might even be dangerous.
(i won't even bother with his stuff worshipping "taxonomy"...
with that, his fetish gets _two_steps_removed_ from content.
our increasing ineffective cataloging systems are in chaos, and
thus can hardly be used to represent "human understanding".)
> Literature—our great archive of human expression—
> is deeply contextual and historicized. We all know this—
> we learned it in school. This essential view of literature
> and the humanities has been—and continues to be—
> reinforced by our libraries and bookstores,
> by the obvious physical adjacency of certain texts,
> the fact of which telegraphs the cumulative
> time-bound nature of the enterprise. We get this reflexively.
i don't know how _you_ read this, but to _me_, sven is saying
that the fact that a physical book is shelved next to other similar
p-books provides the "context" which "we all learned in school".
wow, i'm not sure i can express how lame i find that argument.
no sir, i suspect there's something else going on in sven's head.
the church resisted gutenberg's invention because they thought
it would result in a loosening of their control of their followers,
who'd no longer have to come to them as religious middlemen.
(and, to a very large degree, they were correct in that analysis.)
i have a feeling academics like sven are having similar thoughts.
they're afraid that -- once literature is no longer "locked up" in
university libraries -- the general public will have little need for
english professor middlemen to serve as our cultural navigators.
and the academic middlemen will lose their high-prestige jobs
-- and the big salaries and easy lives that go along with them...
and you know what? they're probably correct in that analysis...
Alain Pierrot on March 10, 2009 3:21 AM:
Good points about fetishization and more or less unconscious concerns about the potential jeopardizing of a comfortable position of authority.
One point though: would you agree that the experience of _any_ 'content' is _always_ mediated by a 'container', in a situation — place, time, mood — which can impact on the meaning of the content for the 'reader'?
bowerbird on March 10, 2009 12:18 PM:
> would you agree that the experience of _any_ 'content'
> is _always_ mediated by a 'container', in a situation
> — place, time, mood — which can impact on
> the meaning of the content for the 'reader'?
the word "always" in that statement is strong (and wrong),
but it is weakened (and corrected) by the later word "can".
so, yes, of course, the container _can_ impact the meaning.
heck, a la marshall, sometimes the medium _is_ the message.
(and other times, the medium is the massage.)
and sometimes when the container impacts the meaning,
there is a good reason for that impact. yet at other times,
such an impact is nothing more than illogical fetishization.
(sometimes the man falls in love with the shoe, instead of
the woman wearing the shoe. but that case has very little
to do with the shoe, almost nothing to do with the woman.
sometimes the man falls in love with the cardboard box
the shoe came in. or the postman who brought that box.
or the uniform worn by the postman. or its shade of blue.)
_most_ of the time, the container is (correctly) disregarded.
you probably remember the circumstances when you learned
that obama had been elected president. momental occasion.
but do you remember how you learned about the landing
of that plane on the hudson? or how about the octomom?
remember what you saw broadcast on the nightly news last
friday? do you even remember if you watched it on friday?
how and where did you learn of the google book settlement?
was it from a twitter blast, or a blog, or your p-newspaper?
that magazine article, did you read it from the p-magazine,
or did you read it on the magazine's website? or did you
simply read a summary of the article in some other place?
your most recent coca-cola? did you drink it from a bottle?
glass bottle, or a plastic one? or did you drink it from a can?
or did you have it from a glass in a restaurant? if so, was it
a glass glass, or a rigid plastic glass, or was it one of those
fast-food pliable-plastic 64-ouncer jobs? your last _pepsi_?
root-beer? hawaiian punch? tequila sunrise? frozen daiquiri?
i understand the fetishization of the paper-book. i really do!
we receive a _tremendous_ amount of value from our stories,
more than joseph campbell or any of us will likely ever know,
and it's only natural that we bestow our appreciation for them
_somewhere_, and as we are physical beings, that somewhere
is (not surprisingly) the physical object that delivers the stories.
(people often save ticket-stubs, for much the same reasons.)
but there isn't _much_ magic in ink-on-paper as delivery tool.
(except that i still don't see how they make paper out of trees.)
like i said, future kids will fetishize all the electronic tools that
deliver those very same time-proven stories to _their_ brains...
(heck, i'm sure there are already people who love their kindles.)
and when direct brain implants become possible, those kids
will rail against them, because "how can you fully appreciate
the _context_ of those stories without a handheld machine?"
Lee on March 11, 2009 2:24 PM:
@bowerbird, I'd love to hear you and Birkerts slug it out, because I fear you both assert all sorts of things without much evidence, just from the opposite sides of the fence.
It's not proof, merely personal and anecdotal, but I certainly observe that I read very differently online and off, and find it difficult to 'process' certain types of content online - philosophy, for example. Perhaps this is just me, but altogether I'd prefer to rely on some evidence from properly conducted studies.
And as to beverages - well, there again, perhaps I'm an oddball, but a cup of tea tastes different in paper cup, a plastic toothbrush beaker, a chunky stoneware mug, or a fine bone china teacup. Of course you can argue that it's just my imagination, but since as a writer I trade in imagination - and as a human being, consider it one of our most valuable assets - then so what?
bowerbird on March 11, 2009 6:09 PM:
well, i'm sorry, but sven's stuff doesn't pass my b.s. sniff test.
so i'd certainly _hope_ that my arguments make more sense...
and let's start with your second point first. is it actually the
_tea_ that tastes different depending on the container it's in?
or do those containers come wrapped in different _situations_
which change your overall perception so it comes out different?
if you switched out the fine bona china teacup for a paper cup,
but left the rest of a fine bone china situation exactly the same,
would the taste of the tea, and your later memory of that taste,
really be different? would your body process the tea differently?
if the restaurant has glass glasses, instead of plastic glasses,
does their coca-cola really taste any different?
> I certainly observe that I read very differently online and off
you might. you've been conditioned to print for your whole life.
i'm not saying that print versus screen has no impact on _you_.
indeed, i've said the opposite. kids will fetishize their screens!
in the exact same way, for the exact same reasons, that sven
has fetished his ink-on-paper books. monks fetishized scrolls.
people are physical beings. if something happens in our head,
something that is important to us, we find a way to represent it
_physically_, out of our heads, so we can see it, feel it, taste it.
if i ask you to think of christmas presents, you're gonna think of
boxes wrapped in brightly colored paper, with ribbons and such.
that's the commonality that serves as our _representation_ of it.
but at base, we understand those boxes and paper and ribbons
are _not_ the christmas presents per se, they're the containers...
so this representational entity is a _shorthand_, for convenience.
that's why we think the "book" -- i.e., the bound ink-on-paper
-- is the "book" -- i.e., the story that's being told by that ink...
it's just representational shorthand. but sven actually believes it!
even more amazingly, he writes that up, and others _cite_ him!
seems to me that, if anything, the weakness the internet brings
is that we're no longer able to screen out b.s. like sven spreads.
we seem to be drawn to it, and thereby to direct attention to it.
Lee on March 13, 2009 9:47 AM:
It seems that we are going to disagree fundamentally - though of course cordially! - for I do feel that our perceptions (and the workings of our imagination) do significantly affect content. There seems to be some evidence to support this from neuroscience research. May I suggest a different sort of example? To me there's a world of difference between watching a film on TV and watching it on a huge cinema screen with a more immersive sound. Though the content is ostensibly the same, the experience of it is not.
Please don't misunderstand me. Since I publish online, these matters concern me deeply, and I'm merely trying to explore what's happening in our mediated world and work out my own thinking about it. Still, I don't think it particularly helpful simply to dismiss something with which I may disagree as bullshit but prefer to assume that the other party is equally serious in his concerns.
Lee on March 13, 2009 1:05 PM:
BTW, in this NY Times blog post are links to some video interviews with Clay Shirky that are very interesting, and in part relevant:
Derek W Pearce on March 13, 2009 2:18 PM:
Not having held one - a question - if I pivot a Kindle can it show me a text in landscape orientation rather than portrait? If I design a landscape text can the Kindle or any other e-reader render it faithfully? Portrait versus landscape is an abiding interest of mine.
Daniel Rourke on March 15, 2009 1:26 PM:
I work with hypertext, with the discursive patterns of digital media, in order to express my ideas. I try to write with the medium. New Media has spawned, and will undoubtedly continue to spawn, entirely new ways for text to do work. But there are things that 'the book' medium can do that no digital screen can, at present, compare with. Yes, digital text has the capacity to do work that the book cannot, say in the hypertextual link or the searchable archive. But the way my mind delves into the spaces of the screen are vastly inferior to the way my mind mediates the ideas of the page. I am reminded of something Derrida said (in an interview from 'Paper Machine') on the word processor's impact on writing:
With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy; you get to thinking that you can go one revising forever. An interminable revision, an infinite analysis is already on the horizon, as though held in reserve behind the finite analysis of everything that makes a screen... Everything – the past and the present – everything can thus be locked, cancelled, or encrypted forever. Previously, erasures and added words left a sort of scar on the paper or a visible image in the memory. There was temporal resistance, a thickness in the duration of the erasure. But now everything negative is drowned, deleted; it evaporates immediately sometimes from one instant to the next. It’s another kind of experience of what is called 'immediate' memory and of the transition from memory to archive.
The space of the book, and thus its form as a medium, is crucial to its capacity as a tool. I found that passage quickly because I had an image in my mind of where I first read it: bottom of page, on the left about a 3rd of the way through the book. When I use a dictionary I know that because the letter M is about half way through the alphabet that I will find the definition of 'Monk' about halfway through the book.
The digital space may be more readily searched, archived and manipulated, but it is flatter, more linear and unidimensional in many ways than the traditional book. Until our digital mediums address this they will never achieve the inherent, instant value of the book object. Digital, omnipresent and traversable text is going to change the way we read, the way we think and learn for the better - eventually. At the moment through, in this intermediary period, its limitations are rooted in the containers it travels in and through and not in the contents it can convey.
I agree with some of the concerns expressed here, and I do not stand by Birkerts' assertions about the book as comfort-blanket. But at present the internet and the digital book are inferior mediums for learning, for remembering, for studying and annotating information. Before writing became text, became print, it had to be engraved, to be inscribed on a scroll with ink and quill. New Media as medium has reached the status and usefulness of a cuneiform clay tablet. It has a lot of evolving to do before it reaches its maturity.
JM Destabeaux on March 16, 2009 4:24 AM:
It reminds me what the UK designer Rob Waller foresaw in 1985 (a pre-Web, pre-multimedia, pre-WYSIWYG, pre-SGML/XML era) about what could be gained and what could be lost in scholarly reading with electronic texts, at risk of not preserving the permanence, volume, and cohesiveness of their materialized counterparts.
bowerbird on March 16, 2009 5:03 PM:
my disagreement is _always_ cordial. i smile when i write posts,
or i refuse to write 'em. life is too short to be unhappy. really...
i certainly agree that the _experience_ of seeing a film on t.v.
versus in the theater is "different". but a week or a month or a
_year_ later, i remember the _film_, not how/where i _saw_ it...
maybe i'm unique in that regard. or maybe i'm totally normal.
derek, the kindle doesn't do landscape yet. it will. eventually.
most of the iphone e-book viewer-apps can. landscape away.
> The digital space may be more readily searched, archived
> and manipulated, but it is flatter, more linear and
> unidimensional in many ways than the traditional book.
i'm not sure i understand your point here...
> Until our digital mediums address this they will never
> achieve the inherent, instant value of the book object.
...but i'm pretty sure i disagree with your conclusion here...
that notwithstanding, if there is some "inherent instant value"
in the book as an "object", then people will just print them out.
but i don't think it will happen that often, to be honest with you.
nor do i think we will lose anything substantial because of that.
> It reminds me what the UK designer Rob Waller foresaw
> in 1985 (a pre-Web, pre-multimedia, pre-WYSIWYG,
> pre-SGML/XML era) about what could be gained and
> what could be lost in scholarly reading with electronic texts
i couldn't help but notice the irony that you gave no citation.
where can we find this piece? or has it been lost to the ages?
JM Destabeaux on March 17, 2009 2:58 AM:
At the end of my first comment, I gave a link (checked this morning) to the 1985's paper where Waller elaborates on "what electronic books will have to be".
Daniel Rourke on March 17, 2009 9:09 AM:
I just meant that a book is a 3-dimensional object and therefore must be treated as one when it is printed, read, searched or studied. Digital archives have only so far been given a 2-dimensional status. The object-ness of the book instantly gives it a visceral accessibility. This visceral quality carries much of the value of the medium (such as my examples in my previous comment outlined).
Most digital text is on one page, is only searchable, not physically manipulatable, is stable and devoid of the scars of the paper/book palimpsest. Scars carry meaning and value with them also, as Derrida suggests. I think with the book, around the book. Very little digital text aids my thinking. At present it merely attempts to copy the values of the book with a search mechanism or a hypertext link. It does nothing new, although I do believe that it eventually will. The Kindle offers nothing new: in fact it de-evolves the text/mind gap and suddenly I am reading a clay tablet rather than a piece of highly mainpulatable technology.
Books do more work with less bells and whistles.
bowerbird on March 17, 2009 1:14 PM:
> I gave a link
hmm. i don't know how i missed that!
anyway, i'd found the .pdf using google.
haven't read the .pdf yet, but the facts that
(a) i could find it on google, and (b) i now
have a copy of it at my disposal merely by
clicking a few buttons means (c) we must
award 2 points so far to the electronic side.
> I just meant that a book is a 3-dimensional object
perhaps people differ. because that's not important to me.
> The object-ness of the book instantly gives it
> a visceral accessibility. This visceral quality
> carries much of the value of the medium
that's just another way of saying "the container matters", eh?
while one _can_ invest meaning there, it's not _necessary_...
> Scars carry meaning and value with them also
since every copy of a book has different and unique "scars",
the meaning and value doesn't accrue to the actual content.
i myself get a kick out of the sticker in library books where
the return due-dates from various checkouts was stamped.
it makes that actual physical copy seem "more real" to me...
it makes me wonder about the people who checked it out...
did they actually read the book? what did they think of it?
but i don't confuse this curiosity with the _content_ therein.
and i'm sure you don't either. so what you're talking about
is merely some kind of _artifact_ of a p-book's _physicality_.
> I think with the book, around the book.
> Very little digital text aids my thinking.
i'm sure people who grew up with the horse as transportation
talked the same way about their horses. and their children who
grew up with the car then talked the same way about their cars.
the kids of your kids will think of p-books as being "strange".
"sure", they will say, "you _can_ read out of them, but very little
paper-book text aids my thinking." and they will be as correct,
for them, as you are correct for yourself.
> At present it merely attempts to copy the values of the book
> with a search mechanism or a hypertext link.
ok, now you're just getting silly.
electronic search -- just inside of one book -- puts to shame
the searchability of the p-book. to say that "it merely attempts
to copy" p-book searchability is a bald-faced lie, not just untrue,
but a total and complete _reversal_ of the reality of the situation.
if we then add in the ability to search _every_book_in_the_world_,
the "contest" between the two modes becomes utterly _laughable_.
and the hypertext link? just, exactly, what is that "a mere attempt
to copy" from the paper-book? a reference in the bibliography?
yeah, right. that reference in the bibliography means a trip to the
library in the _hope_ that the target will actually _be_there_ to see.
and you want to compare that with button-click simplicity of a link?
not just compare it, but say the e-book is "a mere attempt to copy"?
i must be misunderstanding, because you completed reversed reality.
> The Kindle offers nothing new:
250,000 books, carried in your pocket, is "nothing new"?
> Books do more work with less bells and whistles.
excuse me while i slowly back away from you, while keeping
my eyes on you the whole time, because you're crazy, daniel,
you're just plain loco. :+)
Lee on March 17, 2009 3:10 PM:
Hi bowerbird, I agree that later on, one remembers the film, not necessarily the venue. But maybe this is begging the issue: someone could be remembering it better - or altogether - because of the venue/container/form. What do you think?
bowerbird on March 17, 2009 7:33 PM:
> someone could be remembering it better - or altogether -
> because of the venue/container/form. What do you think?
it might be possible. in _either_ direction.
especially depending on ones acculturation. :+)
Daniel Rourke on March 20, 2009 7:28 AM:
This debate could go on for a while, so I thought I would conclude our banter with a quote from Joseph Tabbi's book, Cognitive Fictions:
But that’s not how books work – not when a passage can be gone back to with the flip of pages that, while reading, is often easier than retracing the branching pathways through a hypertext. The book, as N. Katherine Hayles has pointed out, is as yet a more efficient Random Access Device (RAD) than any electronic hypertext, and I might mention here that the computer’s ability to hold a given trajectory in digital memory is actually less helpful, to me, than my own visual memory of where a word or phrase happened to appear on a page within a particular section of a book... It would seem, then, that the celebrated non-linearity of hypertext is in large part a literalisation (at the level of tagged word groups) of mental connections that readers learn to make, one way or another, when reading fiction or poetry in print. Through a kind of flickering or oscillating attention, such connections can easily take place across many pages, or within the space of a single phrase; they enable a poem or a narrative to take shape in the mind of a reader, and this mental picture "a network of possibilities rather than a preset sequence of events" (Hayles, 'The Transformation of Narrative and the Materiality of Hypertext' 21) is rarely congruent with the progressive continuity of following lines and pages stacked on pages through the course of a book.