Open Books: The E-Reader Reads You

Tumblr_legmc4iQR21qzll1y Rob Horning in The New Inquiry:

It’s fitting that at the end of this essay about the proliferation of e-readers, Scott McLemee invokes critic Franco Moretti, who has devoted the past decade to deromanticizing literary criticism and reconfiguring serious study of the novel as a bloodless, quasi-objective matter of empirical data analysis. In this New Left Review essay, which touches on his idea of “distant reading” — the opposite of close reading, the careful scrutiny of particular works— Moretti declares, “We know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.” If e-readers live up to their potential, he just may get his wish.

McLemee rightly cautions against making e-books vs. their printed and bound counterparts an either-or proposition: “I am biased in favor of reading itself, rather than towards one format,” he explains. In the aggregate, more reading will likely happen thanks to e-readers. As they become more prevalent, they will make more books accessible to more readers. Books will become cheaper, and as standardized digitization will make them easy to copy and circulate, most will be available free to those willing to test the piracy waters. And just as the advent of the mp3 led to heretofore impossible-to-hear music becoming available to anybody willing to search for it, long out-of-print books will probably end up being shared on niche blogs and torrent sites. No book need ever become lost. It will be like a library fire in reverse.

That said, the nature of the format nevertheless certainly affects the reading experience and the specific qualities of works that end up being tailored to it. The iPod, which helped establish the feasibility of similar gadgets for books, has certainly changed the production of pop music, which is now mastered with earbuds in mind. Singles once again dominate the market; compiling songs into albums has become more nostalgic than necessary or economically warranted. And I still vividly remember throwing out my entire CD collection — for me, a drastic, dramatic act of severance with material things that seemed unthinkable right up to the moment I was doing it. I can’t yet imagine doing such a thing with my books, glossed as they are with my precious marginalia, but objects can be swiftly desacralized. Changes are sure to come to how we buy and keep books, and because of the nature of e-readers and our established ideas about the sanctity of reading, those changes may be more profound than anything that has happened to music.