April 4, 2012
Follow me on Twitter

The New Value of Text

Ever since McLuhan became a rock star, people have been fantasizing about a post-textual world. That dream underpins lots of shallow hype. That fear inspires stuff like Reading At Risk. It is deeply unserious because there is an entire catalog of indispensable topics about which we can talk in no other way. Yes, paintings and music and film are eloquent, but if you need a law or a contract, a design for a bridge that won’t fall down, the square root of 17, or an explanation for the Diels-Alder reaction, you’d better write it down. James Bridle, book futurist, gets this right:

We are witnessing a profound assault on book publishing and literature, on the text itself—not from ebooks, which publishers are slowly, painfully coming around to after a long resistance, or the internet, which is after all entirely made of text—but from applications, “enhanced” books and reductive notions of literary experience. As I’ve written about before, in the context of advertising, publishers’ reactions to new technologies betray a profound lack of confidence in the text itself. We are being distracted by shiny things.

Then, unfortunately, he veers off the tracks. “Text lasts.” he continues, though of course it doesn’t always last. And then, “It is not dependent on technology: it is what we make technology out of.” If sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then familiar technology is indistinguishable to a book futurist: it is so familiar he cannot see it. Of course, the codex book is technology, just like my computer, and I’m using both of them right now to make newer technology. Good grief.

Those tactile, haptic joys the screen denies,

The paperback’s materiality,

These simply were the way things always stood,

The nature of the world, and no technology

Had ever altered books, or ever would.

Bridle takes a swipe at hypertext fiction but seems to think it has something to do with “media-rich CDs,” conflating Expanded Books with hyperfiction. He concludes by observing that “more and more is published with less and less context,” where by “context” he means the conventional symbols of the publisher’s care: author bios, flap copy, indexes. But all this apparatus is a technology (for which see Anne Blair’s Too Much To Read and Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote) and it’s not going anywhere unless readers send it away. Nor can anyone who reads thoughtfully on an iPad fail to notice all sorts of new context; a dictionary at your fingertips is nice, Google as a fact-checker is nicer. And if someone mentions a painting, or a sculpture, or an aria, or an Elizabethan sonnet, the odds are very good that you can find a decent copy in seconds.

That’s context.