As I entered the empty auditorium (I was the first there) I paused and took in my surroundings: padded leatherette seats for the audience, modern, sleek white armchairs for the panel, a bottle of water next to each long-necked microphone, dimmed lights, shining stage, and a background image centered behind the panel announcing the speakers and the title of the talk. I then settled in, ready for "compelling arguments" which, I read, would "leave [me] with a renewed enthusiasm for books and vowing to spend less time online."
Well…that didn't happen.
I suppose activating my prior knowledge (hearing an Atwood interview on Start the Week earlier in the day) and noting the bold “or” in the title of the talk should have dampened my enthusiasm. But it didn’t. I was eager to hear what contemporary authors and a publisher might have to say about current developments in technology very firmly vis-a-vis books.
Rather than tackle issues arising from the evolution and expansion of digital lit. (things like multimodality, transliteracy, deep learning vs. surface learning, changing roles of the author and reader) all four speakers seemed to focus on the materiality of the book (almost always referred to in its singular form). Atwood and Wagner seemed to find it especially important that we find a book sensual, we can touch it (Stephen Page added that we could smell books…including the glue used for binding…) and, of course, read it in a bath. However, won’t printed pages soak or at least dampen, blurring the font and wrinkling the pages? Why might bringing a book into the bath be the test for “good” reading?
“Besides, more people take showers these days than baths.”
O’Hagan began the discussion with a story of how he “mispent his use” hunting for books and winding his way through the rows of books his local library had to offer – something impossible with e-books.
For O’Hagan the joy came from the difficulty of finding the books, they were “old” he says, “very often dusty and a little bit exclusive.” “Democratization brings to an end that [notion] of exclusivity.” Now, this seems to be the key and in fact the notion of exclusivity kept making an appearence throughout the remainder of the presentation. O’Hagan also made sure to equate exclusivity of reading with a eduction, taste, judgement – all serious qualities that the “democratization” of books (I think he means Austen’s availablity on Project Gutenberg) threatens to “demolish” the world of books. “Throwing everything out there” is a “terrible” thing because all readers (not sure whether he means the educated or uneducated ones…) only get a “terrible mishmash” of “unedited…unjudged, uncontrolled material…” This is where O’Hagan brings in the idea of copyright but, not in terms of money (as Atwood said, authors don’t do numbers, their agents do) but in terms of being recognised for “serious” ideas. Copyright O’Hagan says is to “select, edit and present material in a way that actually has meaning and umm virtue.”
On that note Page begins his segment of the talk by admitting that publishers, writers, all those print-folk, have been “softened-up” as “luddites” who are “sentimentally attached to cracking a book open and sniffing the pages..loving the glue.” He says the “technophiles” would love this to be the case but, Page explains, “it’s not the truth.” He does go on to make a pertinent point in relation to copyright (but I think it can be extended to all digital development) that it is constantly under revision and changes and “makes itself appropriate for the market, gets relegislated…and is adapting very successfully to the modern environment” (however he does not mention Creative Commons et al.). Copyright “must be protected.” Those technophiles mustn’t think of copyright as something “rather inconvenient.” Enter blogger jibe but thank goodness “we don’t have to read that stuff anymore.” In fact, with the plethora of stuff on the internet, Page admits it’s “getting harder to attract people” (those educated readers?). He goes on to insert a quote here but wait, he’s forgotten where he’s read it, “one reads so many”
Interestingly, putting a positive spin on abundance (unlike O’Hagan), Page explains that intention becomes increasingly important as does finding something “good” and having “trusted recommendations” (sounds like he’s been buying books on Amazon…)
Atwood then takes up the talk by suggesting a temporal change: had lastnight’s discussion occurred 2000 years ago we would have been talking about “the death of the scroll.” Well, that’s what the title of the talk refers to then, digitise and authors and books die. At least Atwood exhibited a sense of humor, joking that if we stop publishing books we’ll save trees – that’s “the positive bit.” Well, at least she mentioned a positive. What about access, what about empowerment, what about appealing to different kinds of learners, what about creativity, and why does digital lit. seem to be synonymous with supplanting “the book?” Sadly, it was Atwood’s talk that left me the most disheartened. For her, a book is “having a voice with you” “even if that person is dead…” Does Atwood mean the author? So only dead people write books? The people in my row were certainly confused. Moving along, why would digital lit. be any different? Especially in the way the speakers were talking about online reading. For them it was exactly like a book, just text, appearing on a screen. No one mentioned the addition of images, sounds, and, most importantly especially from a pedagogical sense, interaction! This was not a discussion about the future of the book, this was a rant calling for the demise of reading text on a glaring computer screen. In fact Atwood explains, “We’re supposed to be talking about computers and whether everybody is going to read your book on a computer…not yet.” So that’s digital lit.; a print novel not published on paper and left in it’s “native” environment…hrm. Atwood goes on to say “it’s very hard for one thing to read 500 consecutive pages of Anna Karina on a computer without having something go really wrong with your eyes.” I think it would be difficult to read 500 pages straight of anything (nevermind the medium, I’d need a coffee break). How would you actually absorb that and then critically assess what was being said, by whom, and why? Fortuitously Atwood points out that “another thing with computers, you don’t neurologically assimilate the information to the same extent that you do with the page…they’ve done tests of this and that’s why when you send somebody a memo you have to itemise all the things you want them to do and number them otherwise they won’t see those things.”
Who are the “they” who have done such tests. Where were they conducted…what other tests share the same findings? I did some research and found Jakob Nielson explain how people read “web pages” (not memos, not digital lit…): “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.” Thus “we should teach students how to write hypertext and not how just to write printed documents.” Exactly, and, we can teach students how to read online (see my lesson plan on Inanimate Alice). Even more crucially, I think, how are memos like novels or like digital lit.? How can these different objects which are crafted to perform different functions and employ different media, and (often) appeal to different audiences, be compared? Atwood sums up the inadequacy of this analogy when she responds to Page’s call for “good” e-books by saying “what you mean by a good e-book is one that is really like a book” (not even a “good” book mind you, just a book.)
And so the talk continued until question time. Sadly Wagner didn’t seem to moderate the question period and encourage either the panel to stop talking once questions had been (more or less) answered or more discussion from the floor. This resulted in only four questions being broached because certain participants felt it their duty to offer lengthy eulogies on the merits of the book (which no one really doubts). The first question was very good and raised my hopes and was asked by the director of accessiblity at a digital design agency concerning the accessibility of a digitised book (the font size can be easily changed, it can be turned into braille, and it can be transformed into audio) however “digital rights management threatens to slam the door shut…if copyright [drm] means there are such secure locks on digital books.” Page answers: “I’m not quite sure how digital rights management would prevent that.” Really, like this: “The impact of compatibility limitations can be especially serious for users with special needs. For example, visually impaired users may not be able to access digital content effectively if DRM renders the content incompatible with specialized text-to-speech devices or software. See All Party Parliamentary Internet Group, supra note 3, at 13-14 (noting that DRM can “prevent the disabled from accessing digital content . . . because the specialist hardware and software that
is used to convert the content into speech, Braille, or large type, fails to interwork with the protected material).”
After the first question (emanating from the second row), Wagner made a tactical decision and seemed to prefer taking questions from the back (I was in the first row) and from more seasoned looking people, preferably those with pens and paper (I had a digital camera). The second question was directed at O’Hagan: “is there no quality in digital text” to which he responded that “it’s true” that to read “literary” work (previously referred to as high-culture) one should be smart or educated but “fact is, education and a serious literary culture have a partnership.” By ignoring the merits digital literature offers and the different and wider audience it might reach, nevermind it’s still neophyte state, O’Hagan made a call for the “reinstating of that connection” (between “serious books” and education). And he doesn’t mean students using google to write term papers…
Favourite Quotes: “What they mean by content, we mean books.” “One reason you haven’t heard much of the longtail is because it’s become a boardroom cliche.”
Key Words: serious, literature, bath, paper, glue, book, education, intelligence, exclusivity, high-culture
Personal Aside: just because readers enjoy digital literature or art does not mean that by fiat they just will not appreciate or understand print lit. Why does the anxiety that one will eclipse the other remain? And, how different might this presentation have been had a digital writer or artist been involved?