What is that French saying?
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Yep. There’s nothing new under the sun. Lather, rinse, repeat. All of this has happened before and it will all happen again…
And did anyone else get jetlag from that whirlwind tour through the history of print literacy (specifically, the growing mountain of textual production and its effects on human literate behavior) that Naomi Baron sped us through in chapter 3 of Words Onscreen (appropriately – ironically? – titled, “tl;dr”)? First of all, I definitely did not find this chapter too long – if anything, it may be guilty of some of the very practices she elucidates in the chapter – abridgement, condensation – in order to reduce a terribly long and complex history of textual production and reading practices into a mere 20 pages.
That’s not a bad thing. I think she does a good job here – and in the text as a whole – of making an extremely messy and complex subject accessible and comprehensible to a broad audience. While this text is a University Press imprint, and one of the most prestigious at that (Oxford), it clearly is meant for an audience of non-experts in the fields of book history, cognitive science, language and literacy education, computers and writing, etc. that are among the specialized academic disciplines whose work traverses the terrain that Baron synthesizes here.
It seems that ever since we’ve had things to read, be it chapbooks, novels, essays, whatever, we’ve been trying to figure out how to put in as little time as we can into actually reading all those things. Some of this is driven by the obvious constraint of time – there really are only so many hours in a day and the proliferation of written text has only increased with each new writing technology and media form. We simply cannot read it all. And we’ve always been engaged in practices of scanning and skimming and prioritizing in our reading habits. And I have to agree with Baron’s assessment:
Much of what is written doesn’t merit our sustained attention. (43)
Still, it is troubling to think that, in situations where the reading might be crucial (ahem…class reading – it really does have a purpose; not assigning it just for kicks!), a reader might only give a quick skim, at best, or worse, not read at all.
But it is reassuring, in a way, to know that this is not a new phenomenon brought about by the ebil digital media, as is often promoted in popular discourse these days (see here, and here, and here, and here…). Though Baron’s text may be acknowledging the more complex reality, the Nicholas Carr blurb on the back cover gives me pause and makes me fear that this book may only be contributing to the popular narrative about digital media’s effects (which Carr has been central in promoting).
The truth is, every technology is engaged in a complex remediation of earlier technologies and the cultural and behavioral practices those technologies and media foster. Baron notes that Addison and Steele’s gossip mags were remediation – an attempt to replicate the raucous coffee house/club conversations of the early 18th century. Remember Jay Bolter and how he talked about that whole concept of remediation? Keep thinking about that! We are always trying to use technological innovations and techniques to improve representation’s relationship with reality. We use media all the time to make things more lifelike, more real (transparent or immediate, to use Bolter’s preferred terms), as well as more hypermediated, more obviously and actively unreal, with layers of bells and whistles that allow us to engage in various ways with what is being represented. When Baron quotes, on page 48, Aaron Hill’s letter to Samuel Richardson in which he reassures his friend that the lengthiness of his novels is necessary – “precision, in so natural a flow of drapery, would only serve to stiffen” – I could only think about how the novel form and realism are so closely bound together in an act of remediation, that of representing the world as transparently as possible, of making the unreal as real as can possibly be. And that requires a lot of words!
Obviously, there is pleasure in the text and it’s often the pleasure of getting caught up in and captured by the world or view of the world that a writer is presenting to us. We’ll read for hours and beg for more if a writer can engage us with the story she wants to tell. The Harry Potter novels were all in Richardson territory in terms of length, after all. And long-form essays by the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates and George Saunders regularly make the rounds of social media reposts and retweets, a sign that people still get invested in a well done piece of nonfiction, no matter how lengthy.
So we can’t stop writing long pieces. We shouldn’t. But we do need to recognize that not everyone’s going to read every word. Even great writers get abridged and condensed and anthologized and even SparkNoted. Still, as Baron says,
reading and writing are joined at the hip (45).
We have to think carefully about how to generate that kind of engagement we want while acknowledging (and making some concessions to, perhaps) the way we read now (and always have and always will?). As we start our Scalar project, that is going to be our focus and our aim.
In the meantime, keep reading. Great writers read A LOT. Don’t be a George!