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I wanted to share with you all a post I read this weekend on the New York Review of Books blog. Novelist, essayist, and translator Tim Parks writes about the differences between paper and e-books, claiming that we lose essentially nothing (and perhaps even gain something) when we make the switch from print to digital. What we gain, Parks says, is freedom from the “extraneous and distracting” materiality of a printed book: “In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.”

The post arrested my attention all the more forcefully because I discovered it so shortly after our excursion to MITH, where we spent a good deal of energy working out how to record and preserve the physical features of the Frankenstein manuscript in XML: I hoped sharing it with you, my markup compatriots, would be cathartic. I would welcome a discussion particularly because I wonder how much my textual-criticism-and-book-history background skews or otherwise influences how I’ve interpreted Parks’s remarks.

One of the reasons I have trouble with the piece is because Parks fails to distinguish between born-digital texts and digital surrogates of print texts. He claims that Jane Austen, Dan Brown, and James Joyce read the same on an e-reader as they do in any printed book. I think that at least part of his argument is really about the difference between the work itself and the witnesses, or texts, through which we experience the work. The novel Pride and Prejudice does not exist in one particular printed instantiation, and Parks writes evocatively about this truth: “We all know that once the sequence of words is over and the book closed what actually remains in our possession is very difficult, wonderfully difficult to pin down, a richness (or sometimes irritation) that has nothing to do with the heavy block of paper on our shelves.” I, for one, always imagine that works float around up above our heads: ethereal, almost imaginary, and, as Parks says, “wonderfully difficult to pin down.”

However, Parks seems to insist that because works are necessarily immaterial, the medium through which we experience a version of that work does not affect “the [essential] literary experience.” Mediation is insignificant; or, rather, electronic mediation is somehow preferable, because it does away with those pesky, distracting physical trappings that make up the printed codex: paper, binding, type, layout, advertisements. “We can change everything about a text but the words themselves and the order they appear in,” he says. “The literary experience… lie[s] in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end.” To read Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, a Kindle (or for that matter a stock ticker!) should do the same kind of work for the reader that any printed copy of the poem does, because “unlike painting there is no physical image to contemplate, nothing that impresses itself on the eye in the same way, given equal eyesight. Unlike sculpture, there is no artifact you can walk around and touch. You don’t have to travel to look at literature.” Perhaps using a visually provocative poem like Pound’s is unfair to Parks, but I also wonder how he would answer my objection. Never mind that before the Blake Archive existed, one did “have to travel to look at literature,” because there was no way to access the work without doing so.

For those books originally printed in ink on paper, specific physical objects—witnesses of the un-pin-down-able work itself—do exist, on coffee tables and bookshelves and in libraries and private collections around the world. Even leaving aside books like Oscar Wilde’s The Sphinx, which we know only look the way they do because their authors insisted upon this binding, those illustrations, and that kind of paper, we are living, as Madonna has it, in a material world. Materiality always has and always will affect both paper and electronic reading experiences. Dust jackets and covers, which Parks dismisses as “repositor[ies] of misleading images and tediously fulsome endorsements,” influence our readings of novels and poems and essays, just as they influenced readers in Dickens’s nineteenth-century London. As technology changes, we will continue to encounter born-digital materials too through new mediums and electronic platforms. Twenty years from now our Kindles and Nooks and iPads will be electronic dinosaurs, and the way we read Joyce electronically will be foreign to later generations. Perhaps future scholars will study electronic forms of mediation with the same enthusiasm that some of us now apply to our study of print culture. In any case, I would like to insist that there is more to “the literary experience” than “only the sequence of the words.”

Just some things to keep in mind as we work on our next reading assignment, which is, delightfully enough, an illustrated children’s book: Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. What do you all think? Does medium matter? How are you encountering Alice? What would Tim Parks say?

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