The New Reading

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…and the persistence of the printed page amid new media writing, the writing beyond the page, and the ubiquitous Screen

Lately, I’ve had trouble sleeping at night: full of strange unnameable anxieties, my head crowded with voices, disjointed thoughts, fragments of paragraphs, half-phrases. Trying to understand where this is coming from, I read from bits and pieces of writers—who themselves in turn had written essays that felt like bits of blog posts and Wikipedia shards wired together—that argued my brain was being completely rewired, retooled, that we were all being retooled. Some argued that the new media had forever altered our attention span, that the experience of being completely lost and absorbed, an experience they said you only got from a printed book, had disappeared. I couldn’t disagree with them. I wondered seriously if I would ever again finish reading a whole book, if discrete books themselves had not secretly disappeared from the face of the earth, each smeared deftly into the other, indeed, I even wondered if I would ever again be able to have a complete and private thought, to even remember what that had been like. When I sat in front of my laptop hooked to the net, which was most of the day, it was as if the rays of its backlit screen were going straight into me; terrible headaches ensued. If I took refuge in my beloved e-ink reader, as I did more and more often, using it to try and slow the world down, I was one step closer to the simplicity of the old page, except that it still was fundamentally intangible, vanishing before my eyes, except that it still encouraged me to click-jump from book to unfinished book.

What a strange set of contradictions I appeared to be caught up in. The internet was the new main source of our reading, especially in India, after the old, great libraries had been left to quietly rot, after the bookstores had started to fill themselves up with hundreds of copies of the same three or four hotsellers. The internet was a place of plenitude, it catered to the finest niche taste as much as the bottomline, it placed very few restrictions on length, and literary journals—like the one I co-edit—had, while getting cheaper, also been getting longer and longer, carrying extended essays with little trouble. At the very same time, the internet was, still, the place where, statistics proved, one spent an average of not more than 50 seconds reading a page. In the first two decades of the internet, we even had the naïve belief that it already contained, or at least would eventually contain, everything in the universe, every book, every sentence ever written, and that, once on the net, it would somehow be there indelible, forever. In actual fact, large parts of the world were very far from the web, and some were possibly even getting further away; for instance, connectivity was coming to India’s rural areas while they were being allotted fewer and fewer hours of electricity each day. In fact, while this strange belief in the immortality of the internet page persisted, pages everywhere were being continually corrected, censored, taken down, disconnected, issued legal notices, deleted, switched off by the people whose servers they sat on. The 404 error was like a song of our times; it was foolish to think that pure data was less precarious than a printed page.

In the midst of all this, the book had been replaced by a universe of screens, screens of every possible type, shape, quality, screens for every need and temperament; yet, precisely because it was impossible to predict the capabilities of the device a given text would be read on, and how that device would render your text, you ended up feeling far less freedom with things like design, typography, blank space. Suddenly, nearly everything you were reading was in Georgia font. Suddenly the most simple things, like the break of a line in a poem, became a major headache for the ebook publisher: you had very little control over what would happen to that line on the page when each reader was setting a screen and font size of her own. The idea of publishing itself had changed forever, in ways that we had not fully grasped, in a way that even our languages had not been able to keep up with. When you hit that ‘publish’ button on your blog, how was this different from publishing as done by Random House or Open magazine?  We weren’t sure. Was there any fundamental difference? Never again could a writer be kept from her readers, so it was claimed—and yet in that very noise, when every reader was also a writer, there was apparent terror, the desperation of making your voice heard in the clamour. Never had you been more lonely than when you were on Facebook.

And writing itself had changed, so they said, had been changing quietly at least since the time the half-blind Nietzsche had bought himself a Writing Ball typewriter and found himself typing with his eyes closed and supposedly—according to his friend Heinrich Kselitz—writing more tightly, concisely. I had persisted in writing the first drafts of my poems by hand—when I wrote that way I felt I could put the full energy of my arm, my shoulder, my body into it, while when I typed on a keyboard it was only my fingers and wrist doing the talking—while, for speed’s sake, I typed prose straight to screen. But it was ultimately intuition and superstition, rituals to keep things separate, not any irrefutable logic, which governed these choices. We knew that with the computer the old labour of typing and retyping multiple drafts, of rolling a work out again and again, each sentence gradually leading to the next, had been replaced by a culture of cut, paste, morph; we knew that the very understanding of what a ‘draft’ was had changed forever after one draft could no longer be separated from another; but we had still no idea what this meant, if anything at all.

Everything was now available, but at the same time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything was also missing. The soul had fled along with the body from the digital text, I thought. I hope it won’t be laughable or backward to say, then, that I was scared and anxious. It was as if, unbeknownst to our former selves, we had quietly become an alien species, that I myself, albeit with the memory of a childhood and adolescence before the change, was also now one of these aliens.

Well, says my alien self, then, what’s wrong with that? Wasn’t it merely a reminder that I was on the threshold of middle age? I had friends a decade or two younger than myself, who were reading long fat novels digitally in bed, propping the laptop on its side; all the claims, the semi-spurious research about our brains rewiring, meant nothing at all, we were masters of our fate, we would get the technology we deserved, we would change, the technology would keep changing too, flexibility was the future. Did I want to go back to the situation I had heard of from older poets, of all-powerful publishing monopolies, when you published a book that no bookstore would stock, when your reputation spread without many people even having the chance to read you? And if the individual author had disappeared, if the world was just an endless ocean of text that you took in and spat out, which you sometimes read as if from the high, distant vantage of the search engine, when you gobbled through hundreds of thousands of pages in a few seconds, alighting for a brief time on only the phrase or piece of information you needed, when you had the freedom to assemble your own unique book of life, what was wrong with that? Didn’t it make you smarter, more knowing, more worldly, more in touch? Wasn’t it right to upset the hierarchy of author and reader? Wasn’t it remarkable how, when you bought an ebook, it now came along with the annotations and markings of hundreds who had read it before you? And, moreover, how could you say that any of this was really new at all? Hadn’t you seen paintings of medieval scholars sitting with several volumes open at the same time? Hadn’t this moment been on its way for centuries? Even if people didn’t read books at all, what was wrong with that? The Ramayana, said AK Ramanujan, was “always, already” there, by which he meant, you didn’t have to read it; if you grew up as an Indian it was simply part of the very package of your being. Yes, of course, there was a cost to that, the potential stupidity and thinness of thinking you already knew what it could or couldn’t contain without actually having read it in its versions from Valmiki onwards (then the shock and surprise, if and when you finally read a closer translation of Valmiki’s version!) but there was also the broader beauty of a story that had been dislodged from any book or author. What if the new reading was merely returning us to our oldest selves?

Troubled by these unresolvable contradictions, these different me-s inside of me, I finally fell asleep. I woke into a beautiful dream. It wasn’t a dream of the distant past; no, far from that, just the opposite, it was a place where screens of every type proliferated—fat, thin, long, circular, triangular, held in your hand or equally, scanned into your retina, running in a scroll along the ceiling.

As you walked through your day, you read books, but books of every type: the old novels, yes, but also new books written specifically as sound and light shows that animated along long horizontal panels, or books with soundtracks synched in, books built from automatic recombinant snippets that changed as you read them, books as excel files, books written and rewritten by bots. Somehow in the dream, all these were not disorienting at all, I had grown used to them. Writers had learnt to do truly meaningful things with these possibilities rather than simply promote them as ideas or use them to advertise versions of the old. But the real beauty of this dream was still to come.

Stumbling on a small alcove, parting its lace curtain, I found a printed book of the kind that everyone had predicted would become extinct. Let’s say it was a book of poems; let’s say it was a shrine to all the things that were supposed to one day be obsolete: letterpress printed, thick, grainy paper, hand-cut and hand-bound, the shape not standard, the margins not standard, instead each poem, each word, according to its needs, lovingly laid out across the page. Every now and then, a few little flaws. You began by closing your eyes, with a book like that. I brought it to my face and took in the smell of its pages. Importantly, it was a brand new book, a book of my own time and not a relic from the past. I ran my fingers across it and felt its erotic charge; you read with your fingers as much as with your eyes. Had it been made for me by a friend? Thinking about it a new way, I evaluated the ‘specs’ of the technology in my hand: its unique pleasures for all the senses, its ability to last a thousand years with the right paper and binding, its structural integrity, its uniquely efficient spatial organisation of data, its opportunities for artists, its simplicity that drew in your attention and held it. I looked up, and the screens were still there. I understood then that the book in my hands had become, not obsolete, but more special in their presence, and also that the interest of the screens was, equally, in being able to do something different than the printed pages. Each made the other more real. Nothing was replaceable, nothing cancelled out. Nothing was past, present, or future.

I was afraid that this world in which I was having my cake and eating it might disappear. Yet, as I walked around, I found the opposite happening, it grew more populated, people had taken to writing on and renewing all the media of the past. There were new books being written on stone tablets, on temple walls, on palm leaves, on long scrolls—the last of these not so different from the new web pages. On a machine that emulated the ancient Apple IIe, I sat and watched what were perhaps the first animated poems, written by a Canadian poet called bpNichol in 1984. Then I saw the poems of the Chilean Raul Zurita, written in the sky with a skywriting plane, or in the desert with bulldozers, visible from space. As more printed books arrived in the post—far from extinct—among them were envelopes from the Trinidadian poet Nicholas Laughlin, each containing a one-line minimalist poem on a card; you waited months for the next in the sequence to arrive.

The most unrealistic thing about this world was that poets were at the centre of it; yet, hadn’t they, through their various experiments, pioneered both the new media writing, the writing beyond the page, and then stubbornly, triumphantly, brought back the persistence of the printed page? I was beginning to see that the dream was not so far from the world I would soon wake up in. We were outside now. The sun was setting. I was going with my lover to the movies; it was an old-fashioned large theatre—the kind where, unlike at the multiplexes, you could sit with hundreds and feel truly, thrillingly, alone. The movie began. But it had no pictures. Instead, on the screen scrolled text, a text that went on for hours, a whole novella. Curled into each other’s bodies, drinking in each others’ smell, and mingled with the smell of all the others we shared this theatre with, all the others leaned back into their cushioned seats, reading simultaneously, silently in the dark, completely absorbed, my lover and I sat and read the whole thing.