Can we focus on the words?

Similar to Olivia I found Sven Birkert’s reflections on reading and the digital to be flawed. One passage that I was drawn to in particular details the ways in which a novel affects the reader’s everyday life: “While I am reading a novel, one that reaches me at a certain level, then the work, the whole of it—pitch, tonality, regard of the world—lives inside me as if inside parentheses, and it acts on me, maybe in a way analogous to how materials in parenthesis act on the sense of the rest of the sentence.” By using the form of the novel exclusively to make this parallel Birkert ignores the fact that a multitude of digitized texts can affect the reader in a similar way. Just as the words of a novel can “live” within the reader and inform the way he or she views the world this is also true when reading an e-book, an online article, or even a post on social media. The interface is irrelevant; ultimately, what matters is whether or not the words touch the reader.

Birkert’s heavy use of analogies and rhetorical devices circumvent this very argument. This passage continues with a descent into lyrical language that almost reads as a piece of creative writing in itself: “I watch people crossing the street at an intersection and something of the character’s or author’s sense of scale—how he inflects the importance of the daily observation—influences my feeling as I wait at the light.” These few sentences, which could easily appear in a self-conscious postmodern text such as Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler struck a chord with me as a reader. Although I read Birkert’s article online this passage will still stay with me and perhaps affect how I view the reading process.

Applying the question “What does ‘the digital’ do to ‘the text’?” to this problem, I believe that the digital gives the reader additional avenues and therefore more opportunities to allow an author’s words to contribute to his or her outlook. By extrapolating from Birkert’s analogy and applying it to the digital realm, the reader can pick and choose which words from which source speak to him or her rather than being constricted to the novel.

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3 Responses to Can we focus on the words?

  1. Pingback: Digital Psychology? | The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes

  2. sasha.makarewicz says:

    I think we’re still very primitive with prose and poetry in a digital interface at least if we think about reading novels and actual texts online. The Kindle(or Kobo I guess) has to mimic the tint and a certain amount of dimness to replicate a book reading experience. The brightness of a computer screen is still not an ideal. But there are also things like comiXology, a digital comic book reading app, that actually enhances a reading experience. The app allows the reader to zoom in on comic panels and actually follow the layout of pages much more effectively than the actual physical copy. And because it’s comics and there are pictures and there are words, there is less of a strain on reading on a screen because there is a greater visuality to the process(and wordballoons feel much more like they are part of the visuals than how text on an internet article feels).

    But I’m with Birkert regarding certain things because I’m an old man. I do have a harder time with long form articles online or in an PDF. I still like physical books. But there is a difference between making something for the digital interface and photocopying it and scanning it into a digital interface. With a PDF it is a copy of a physical object and you’re reading that through another layer and that’s harder to focus on. I can watch something online, but I still prefer watching it on a television or on the big screen. But those are kind of the same things just at a distance and size you’re more accustom to. I’m thinking about this as I type this.

    And it is true to a degree. There are certain ways of experiencing things. Birkerts had a weird way of saying it, but he’s not completely wrong.

    • nlikarev says:

      I enjoyed the clip you posted Sasha! I think there is something vital in what David Lynch is saying though. There is no explanation in the clip and I do not know if David Lynch would agree with me, but I would say the most important thing is the experience and realizing what you are receiving from it.
      For instance, watching a movie on an iPhone you have to ask yourself if you are fully engaged. The answer most likely is no. The small screen requires one to actively ignore all other distractions to focus on the small screen. There goes a bunch of focus! This is how all digital and print reading should be viewed. If the reader is receiving whatever they need from the reading and is able to utilize the perfect amount of attention then it is the correct medium for them!
      Since this means that a lot is up to the reader a great deal of fear sets in. This is understandable, but, as it is with fear, irrational. The only ones who can answer the better or worse question (if the print or digital reading environment is better) is the individual reader. If neither are sufficient for the reader, they will not be the only ones and eventually a new idea will be born and improvement will follow, such as with comiXology.
      In the end, we can thank the digital technologies we use, because they remind us to be willing to constantly optimize the reading experience.

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