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The weight of words: do delivery mechanisms matter?

Do we need books to feel like books? In his latest monthly essay for The Literary Platform, historian Ralph Harrington considers the implications of increasingly disembodied text, and calls for a renewed respect for the power of words.

We are physical creatures and we like physical things. Evolution has left us well adapted to touch, hold and carry, to engage with the physical nature of the world around us, to grapple with and to relish the materiality of our existence. This, not a nostalgic attachment to the old ways of doing things, will always put a limit to the encroachment of the non-physical, digital world upon our lives. No-one has yet suggested making the Olympics a matter of virtual athletes running, jumping and throwing their way through a series of algorithms: we have to know what we are watching is real, that the effort involved in conquering the physical constraints on human existence is being made by physical flesh and blood.

Books, of course, have their own intoxicating physicality. A forthcoming book by Stanford professor Denise Gigante, The Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America, provides a fascinating picture of the age of ‘bibliomania’, in which it was the physical qualities of books, their presence, their material qualities whether innate (a fine binding, a richly textured paper) or added (an autograph, the pencilled marginalia of a notable previous owner) that drew people into the excesses of nineteenth-century book collecting and book worship. Today, in the age of the ‘universally available, disembodied text’, Gigante remarks that we still need and desire the physical qualities and physical presence of books: ‘In the end, we will always be tactile creatures’.

TLP has recently featured the Brass Book project by artist Stevie Ronnie, a subtle meditation on the physicality of the book and the future of the book in the digital age (and the work is predicated on the unfashionable assumption that the book has a future). Meanwhile, the material attributes of the mechanisms through which the book is delivered in digital form – the subtle contours of the tablet, the weight of the e-reader and the way it rests in your hands, the physical qualities of touchscreen interaction – are strangely absent from discussion of this new disembodied literary domain (except in the world of patents, and patent disputes). The text, it is assumed, now flies freely through the ether: and this, we are told, is a good thing – an inevitable thing.

In one sense the book has always been just as much an agent of disembodied text as today’s digital devices. Texts can be delivered in many different ways, but are ultimately expressions of non-corporeal things: ideas, narratives, commands. Without senses to perceive them and brains to interpret them they are just arbitrary marks.

Furthermore physical texts are always vulnerable, unstable – texts are damaged, lost, misinterpreted, books have a lifespan, posters are torn down, lettering fades. We know how much literature has survived from previous eras, but we have no idea how much – probably far, far more – has been lost. Would we have a different Homer today if his first epic, the obscene and apparently very funny Margites, had survived?

When printing came to Europe in the fifteenth century, scribes criticized it on the grounds that errors would be perpetuated for ever, just as cultures based on the spoken word have often mistrusted writing as less inherently reliable than a continuous oral tradition. Yet the instability of physically printed texts is as nothing compared to that of its digital counterparts. The printed text of the book is part of the physicality of the book itself, whereas the electronic delivery device is just that – a means of delivery, itself essentially unchanged by what passes through it. The Nazis had to go to the trouble of physically destroying the books they disagreed with: their modern successors would simply have to reach out an invisible hand and wipe all the e-readers clean (Kindles, rather than kindling, facilitating the modern censor).

Does literature lose anything through this digital disembodiment? Stability in a text is something scholars have discounted since the rise of structuralism and other assaults upon the traditional view of the text as coherent, settled, a reliable conductor of meaning and authorial intention. Yet we need it, just as we need the feel of the physical beneath our fingers. The constantly changing nature of electronic documents, in which a million mutable versions fly back and forth and the document you looked at yesterday says something quite different today, or is completely gone, is something the apostles of the digital age hold up as a virtue. Those who like to argue that the age of the book is past, and that we should welcome our liberation from the ‘dead tree format’ that forced words and ideas into cumbersome physical forms, see new and fruitful forms of interaction everywhere. We are told that information wants to be free, in as concise an expression of crudely totalitarian technological determinism as you are ever likely to encounter. The new world is dynamic, multi-voiced and multivalent, interactive. Why would we not want that? And if we do not, we are on the wrong side of history.

In 2005 Thomas Friedman published The World is Flat, a paean to the newly unified, globalized civilization being created by digital technology. Its central conceit was that this new civilization was fundamentally spaceless: it had abolished geography. But this is misguided. The new digital age is less concerned with being spaceless than it is with being weightless. Ideas float free in the cloud, liberated from the weight of the past and unconstrained by the present. The problem with this notion is that words are not weightless, but are heavily encrusted with the things that make human existence simultaneously wonderful and terrible: fear and hope, joy and despair, fulfilment and emptiness. Words condemn and liberate, kill and grant life. It is when we forget that that we think trending topics are the motor of good government, that Twitter makes revolutions and crowdsourcing is the new democracy.

Words are weighty things. Wielding them, digitally or in any other way, is a heavy responsibility.

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