Hitler and me for the book, the Kindle and writing; Moses, Buddha, Socrates and Jesus Christ against

A book of words is usually fairly simple and ordinary; at its best it can give us a sense that this ordinariness is very special indeed.

Of course ‘special’ sounds silly as soon as I write it down, and ‘ordinariness’ sounds, er, ordinary and empty. So these things have to be lived, experienced. We re-enact them in our media experiences and our representations. I will show you what I mean in my next post; I hope they’ll communicate better.

A couple of posts ago I was looking at an exquisite humanist art-object codex from Florence in 1480, but I don’t think words make more sense if they are hand-lettered in gold. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying that the Medici Psalter isn’t beautiful – I am saying the words make a different sense from the words in a printed book or even on a Kindle. Perhaps they are not even as intense. Perhaps the nearest contemporary equivalent is a beautifully designed app on an iPad. But then does our experience stop being reading and turn into something else?

I feel protective of the Kindle’s drab mono screen. In fact I am convinced by the argument that the Kindle e-Reader is so unattractive as an internet and multimedia device it monkishly compels us to pay attention to the text – rather like a book. How immersive can reading’s 26 letterforms be if it is easy to go off to the web and the flashing lights and sounds of gaming?

The abstraction of reading is difficult and delicate, and other media channels are easier and seem stronger. If apperception and understanding are simply the result of massive sensory input then multimedia will always seem more powerful. But our cognition reaches out, as it were, to these inputs, it actively fuses them together to make sense, to make the experience something for us. I was trying to make this point, in my review of The Artist, about the differently powerful impact of watching a black-and-white silent movie in a colour talkie world. We don’t just consume meaning, we love it into life; maybe it wasn’t the meaning that was put there, but similar to mumbled words of rock songs, we somehow prefer the version inside our head.

What am I really talking about here? Firstly, I am not saying that ‘the book’ in itself and for that reason only is specially amazing. I said in another post that the codex was ‘one of the most astonishing media devices ever invented’; yes, I believe this is true, but for some unusual reasons I need to try and make clear.

A book – and we can extend this to the words on a Kindle – is at root a collection of ordinary-looking words that look mostly the same. Headings and titles will probably be in a well-mannered enough hierarchy that is communicative and expressive of both difference and similarity. Each word helps each other say something together – written words don’t fight. Of course spoken words don’t fight either – but we cannot see (literally) the separateness of individual spoken words. We do see people exchanging words, which are always spoken or shouted – a euphemism for an argument.

Do books or Kindles shout? The information channel bandwidth just isn’t broad enough; the medium equalizes the peaks and troughs of information intensity, and amplifies the signal to the receptor (our cognition) through sheer duration. Brief forms of writing such as texting and posts in webpages are frustrated at the time it takes to say something, and push towards instant representation, such as emoticons ;–)

I’m not saying that books (and Kindles?) or words are inherently civilizing, non-aggressive or saintly. I’ve never read Mein Kampf but I imagine the vile sentiments are expressed in coherent syntax, in a careful development of points in more-or-less equal-length paragraphs within some kind of chapter structure. (Please correct me if I am wrong.)

But Socrates was hostile to writing, as written in Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’ (in The Collected Dialogues, eds Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Princeton University Press, 1961). This is uncomfortably close to a critique I recently posted that search is external but memory is embodied in our sensory experience of paper books. The problem is that Socrates attacks what I defended in the same terms I attacked the e-book:

What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them anything, you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing.

And this, as Alberto Manguel points out (The History of Reading, London: Flamingo, 1997, p. 60), was also the implicit position of the literate but non-writing Moses, Buddha and Jesus Christ.

If I may bathetically shrug off some of heaviest hitters in the history of world civilization and get to the conclusion of this post, perhaps what is most both most disturbing and liberating about the writing in books and e-books is the contrast between its uniform, superficially monotonous appearance and the individuality of the experience it expresses.

I very tentatively suggest the medium is therefore highly expressive and re-enactive of (I hope this doesn’t sound too cringeworthy) the human condition: we are words, words are us. This emptiness of the phrase is only fillable by your active wish to make sense of what you read. And if you’ve got past the headline and down this far, thank you.

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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2 Responses to Hitler and me for the book, the Kindle and writing; Moses, Buddha, Socrates and Jesus Christ against

  1. mark.whitwill@freesurf.ch says:

    In a sense isn’t this an example of the apparent dichotomy between content and form? While the almost spartan Kindle tends to the former, maybe the iPad, like the Codex, is leaning more to the latter?

    • Propagandum says:

      Hi Mark, thanks for commenting. I was trying to say they *both* have forms, of a different kind, that offer different kinds of engagement with our faculties of perception. The Kindle, like a book or old black-and-white newspaper, is hermeneutically open and requires that we actively complete the meaning in the act of understanding. The iPad, like an exquisite manuscript from 1480 or a beautifully printed colour supplement, is so rich in information it almost overloads inputs to our sensorium – this is different from ‘understanding’, though. In the book business it’s difficult not to see e-books going in different directions, one spartan and the other lush. On the other hand, perhaps Amazon will ‘upgrade’ the basic Kindle swiftly, which I think would misread the nature of reading and the incompleteness of the medium of words. Perhaps in the future there will be groups of crusty old ‘classic’ Kindle devotees, the Society for the Preservation of the Internet …

      In other words, yes!

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