Because It Is Not There

By: Peggy Nelson
June 8, 2010


[Conrad Anker as George Mallory, The Wildest Dream, dir. Anthony Geffen, forthcoming 2010]

Last night I was reading an ebook on Conrad Anker on George Mallory on Everest. Diverting enough — the great the Manichean checkerboard of dark and light, man and nature, rock and idea, touch and void. The resolution was crisp; the font, adjustable. It’s a great idea, the ebook: all the books you’re reading at the moment in one small, light device. I’ve tried a few of them; in general, the interface is streamlined and the navigation is intuitive — you see what you’re reading, and tap for the next page. One flows right along.

So, the problem? Not the usual suspects, the lack of paper and its henchmen — heft, smell, and tactility. The problem was the lack of lack. There were only the words I was reading, nothing more. A protective intervention against the solar glare of inefficiency, it felt like reading with blinders on.


[Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes, 1973, photographed by Bob Coglianese]

But we need the blinders off. We need to see all the words we’re not reading, we need them to occupy peripheral vision, to stand by, idly, in the margins of focus. Thinking gets done in the periphery, in the associative leaps where the mind untethers for a moment and springs sideways, to a handhold or toehold taken only on faith. And sometimes it slides right off again. Maybe often. But sometimes there is a there there, and it latches on, and whole new perspectives open up.


[Lynn Hill climbing The Grampians, Australia]

That’s what’s missing with the hyperfocus of ereading. It’s efficient — too much so. Its only downtime is literal. It has no de-purposed idleness, no lounging about, no drift. To program in unproductivity, that purposelessness from which all purpose derives (just not always in the direction suggested by spreadsheets) — that is the upgrade — or downgrade, we need.


[Climbing the North Face of the Uxbridge Road, Monty Python]

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Read-outs

What do you think?

  1. Ms Nelson seems to believe that reading a book is a bit like attending a jazz show (“We need to see/hear all the words/notes we’re not reading/hearing”). Physically turning a paper page cannot magically activate parts of the brain that would otherwise lay dormant. While Ms Nelson fetishizes the book, it’s just paper and glue and ink, and in a parallel universe, we might as easily have stuck with scrolls (is unfurling more or less authentic than page-turning?).

    Wasn’t Joshua Glenn’s “Fake Authenticity” article published on this very site just last week? And yet we have here a case made (a weak one at that) that an ebook is less authentic than a book-book. Just read the damn words already, and quit assigning mystical powers.

  2. Nelson suggests that a printed book’s inefficiency — instead of seeing one and only one page at a time, out of the corner of your eye, you see all of the book’s pages (or their edges, anyway) — prompts her to think differently, while reading, than she does when reading on an ebook. This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with authenticity, to me; it’s about fortuity. I watch movies differently on the computer screen than I do on a TV screen or the big screen — I prefer the computer screen, at least for movies with which I’m familiar, because I’m usually doing something else on the computer at the same time, only to be interrupted when my eye is caught by a particular image from the movie. I find that enjoyable…

  3. Michael – it’s not the medium so much as the size, or focus. E-readers (I’ve tried various ones on the iPhone, as well as Kindle, Nook, and iPad, so far) want to show us just what we need, in the interest of efficiency. And that’s a great *idea – except that in practice, the focus is too narrow, there’s not enough to see on the periphery. If the text I was reading was surrounded by a blizzard of words and notes and ‘pages’ or whatnot – that would be better. We need things in the periphery, as well as in focus, and I don’t think it matters whether those things are on a computer screen, page, scroll, hologram, or whatever. It’s size, and *messiness, more than medium, that counts I think.

    Josh’s anecdote about multitasking to movies in the corner of his screen/eye is also interesting – images and movies in the periphery, instead of just words – possibly very cool! Although we’re so sensitive to movement that the periphery might trump the center, and I think that’s not what we want *all the time.

    And is reading like jazz – maybe, sure, why not? Nothing menacingly magical about that ; )

  4. I think you’re coming on a bit strong, Mr. Kelly. I agree entirely that the ebook is no less authentic than the paper-and-boards version. But it still changes the way we read–or rather, we’re using ebooks to change the way we read.

    But that’s really the point, isn’t it? We make choices about what to read and how, and use the technology to instantiate them. There is no magic involved, but the brain *does* work different media differently. And it’s always been the case, when we moved from scroll to codex, from manuscript to print, and so on. It seems to me that Nelson (who works extensively in electronic media, it must be said) is describing a personal experience. Perhaps the piece could have been couched more in terms of the personal; perhaps that sense of a “we” is simply part of the experience she’s pondering.

    And please let’s not tell people they can’t glimpse mystical powers in books! Let them wax mystical about ebooks, too!

  5. We’re like the Hell’s Angels — pick a fight with one of us and we all pile on. That said, I agree with Mr. B that Ms. N probably should have used the first person singular rather than plural. *We* know that Ms. N’s person is plural, but others don’t.

  6. Sorry! I said that Peggy Nelson “should have used the first person singular.” However, some of my favorite thinkers, including Nietzsche and Adorno, used the first person plural when extrapolating recklessly from their own experiences. And I’ve done the same, from time to time. PN can write in whatever person she wants to! However, when I’ve used the s-p-s, in the past, some readers have complained. [Example: an editor at Reason Magazine once accused me of practicing “psychic sociology.”] So what I should have said was: Unless one doesn’t mind readers complaining that one’s extrapolation isn’t supported by evidence, one should use the f-p-s. Strictly speaking, readers who do complain in this fashion aren’t wrong to do so.

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