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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Materiality Matters: The Physical Reading List in the Age of the Ebook

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Last weekend, The Guardian hosted a debate on Ebooks, in which they discussed the merits and limitations of the novel (excuse the pun) medium. As is usual with this topic, most of the sceptics' arguments hinged around their belief that materiality matters. The feel, texture and dimensions of a physical book cannot be duplicated by a bundle of electronics and plastic which simulate words through flickering pixels.

Having just written a soon-to-be-published review essay on the subject, I'm not particularly taken by these sorts of arguments. When the likes of Margaret Atwood complain that Ebooks will never catch on because they cannot be read in the bath, you cannot help but feel sorry that the Luddites cannot come up with more reasoned arguments as to why the paperback novel is automatically inferior to its digital cousins, which have now become as legible as print (something not true of the earlier models, which quite understandably never caught on). However, I was today musing on one aspect of the material word that will not translate to the digital medium. This is the mere fact of the presence of printed paper in domestic life, and its relative indestructability compared to its digital cousin.

Oddly, my catalyst for these thoughts was the fact that my gift subscription to the Times Higher Education had expired a couple of months ago, but the copies kept on dropping weekly through my letterbox regardless. When I first started getting the Times Higher, I used to read every issue thoroughly: these were 52 small gratuities, with each therefore deserving my attention. However, once I started receiving issues even after the subscription period had ended, and my emails to the organisation failed to stem their generous flow, I suddenly realised just how little material was actually of interest to me. Sure, some of the book reviews were worthwhile; the petty intrigue and gossip provided the academic equivalent of celebrity cellulite; issues like the recent arrest of the Nottingham academic raised points that were of significance beyond the boundaries of higher education. But for the most part discussions about whether a metrics-based Research Excellence Framework is superior to a peer-reviewed Research Assessment Exercise are not of interest to this PhD student.

So you might have expected that, with this realisation, I would be happy just to skim through each fresh issue before throwing it in the recycling. I have more than enough relevant reading to be going on with, and I was finding that the addition of the Times Higher into my weekly schedule meant that I sometimes ended up with two or more London Review of Books on the go at a time (and these do merit my complete attention). Thus I decided to add the Times Higher subscription virtually, to my Google Reader. On a typical morning, I have around 100 feeds flood my inbox, covering topics from photography to Pepys diary, but it is remarkably easy to exercise the digital sieve (by clicking the "next" button), and I end up reading the full versions of perhaps one in ten of that total.

However, even after I had added the Times Higher news feed, those physical magazines kept landing on my doormat. And tellingly, even as I clicked through only a couple of pieces on the online subscription, I also found that magazine annoying me at the kitchen table. I could not just throw it straight in the recycling, even though I knew from its cyberspace incarnation that it would contain only a few points of interest. I could not just skim it, even though I knew that I also had other things to read through. Its physical presence - its thereness, in the room - taunted me. Throwing it away, all half-centimetre thick of it, did not seem quite right. It was not so simple as clicking the next button. And so I read it, thoroughly, from cover to cover, in spite of myself, in spite of more valuable calls on my reading time, and in spite of the fact that inevitably, mid-way through an article, I would realise that it was of little or no interest to me at all.

So this strange difference between my ephemeral reading habits online and my dogged reading habits in the physical world made me wonder whether in the ebook environment, we might lose the haunting possibility, the suspicion, that something of value might be found in the ostensibly bad book or unwanted magazine or newspaper. The book that you got half way through, but which now rests on your shelves, nagging to be finished. The weekend newspaper and its accompanying supplements that demand you check through them, to see if there might be something interesting amongst the full page adverts.

The four walls of my house contain numerous examples of magazines and books that demand to be read simply by being enclosed in my personal space, always being caught in the corner of the eye when I am going about doing something else. My to-read list is not so much dictated by the books I especially want to read in the near future, as by the books I bought in the past with that same desire and which now rest, forlorn but not forgotten, on my own shelves. By contrast, such potential words, experiences, information could be erased from the e-reader with a simple button press, and thus too erased from the library of your unconscious - or conscience - also. It is this habit of reading what is there, as opposed to what could be present, that we will lose in the future of immaterial words. The digital medium is full of possibilities because it makes works immediately accessible; the corollary to this is that it loses their materiality, the presence of books in the present of my life, a to-read list comprised of the physical space occupied by their printed pages.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:16 pm

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