“Our hands become brooms, sweeping away the alphabetic dust before us” or Digital Materiality and Books

I really enjoyed our class discussion on digital materiality, which is a discussion I hear echoed in many places.  The automotive world, for example, rarely has “mechanics.”  Now we have “technicians” who sometimes spend more time programing and evaluating diagnostic machines than they do handling a feeler gauge to measure a spark-plug’s gap.  There must be many Marxist evaluations about labor and touch in the the DH world.

This semester I have been researching digital annotations, a project spurred on by one of my students who can only read digital texts and by my providing only digital texts in the five classes that I am teaching.  Most of my students do not have annotation strategies for digital texts.  Trying to find an accessible digital annotation tool has been a challenge, as I explained in my class presentation.  As I continue reading about digital reading and annotations, I keep an eye out for related articles and such.  This morning I bumped into a professor’s mention of an article on reading and materiality.  The author bemoans the onset of digital texts.

Perhaps I can entice you to read the article by offering you a few snippets:

Nothing is more suspect today than the book’s continued identity of being “at hand.” The spines, gatherings, threads, boards, and folds that once gave a book its shapeliness, that fit it to our hands, are being supplanted by the increasingly fine strata of new reading devices, integrated into vast woven systems of connection. If books are essentially vertebral, contributing to our sense of human uniqueness that depends upon bodily uprightness, digital texts are more like invertebrates, subject to the laws of horizontal gene transfer and nonlocal regeneration. Like jellyfish or hydra polyps, they always elude our grasp in some fundamental sense. What this means for how we read—and how we are taken hold of by what we read—is still far from clear.

Digital texts are somewhere, but where they are has become increasingly complicated, abstract, even forbidden. We cannot see, let alone touch, the source of the screen’s letters, the electromagnetically charged “hard drive,” without destroying it. Unlike books, we cannot feel the impressions of the digital. The touch of the page brings us into the world, while the screen keeps us out. All that remains of the hand is a ghostly remnant of its having been there at the time of scanning, like the chance encounters with scanners’ hands from Google Books, accidental traces of the birth of the digital record. The hand no longer points, like the typographic manicule; rather, it covers over or gets in the way. Hand was there, we might say.

And as one study after another affirms, the more time we spend reading screens, the less time we spend reading individual units of the text. Skimming is the new normal. With my e-book, I no longer pause over the slight caress of the almost turned page—a rapture of anticipation—I just whisk away. Our hands become brooms, sweeping away the alphabetic dust before us.

You can read the entire article at Slate: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2012/11/reading_on_a_kindle_is_not_the_same_as_reading_a_book.single.html

I had not noticed the prominence of touch, what seems to be the rhetoric of touch, in DH discourse until our last class.  My thanks to you for our last class discussion, which I keep revisiting.



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