Reading through Laura and Olivia’s critiques of Sven Birkerts’s article in The American Scholar, I found myself agreeing with their criticisms and yet unable to let go of the way that I felt moved by his description of reading practices. I agree that there is something more than the mere contents of a text that move us. I also feel that “my reading has done a great deal for me even if I cannot account for most of it”. Analytically, his article is flawed, as previous posts have examined. Still, he is getting at something about the way we feel when we read, the way we enter into the worlds that we read, that I believe is related to the way we discuss the digitization of texts.
Thinking about the question “what does the digital do to the text”, our prompt for this week’s reflection, I am aware of how easily we group together the way we read, the way we produce text, the way we mediate text, into one wholesale reaction to the relationship between the digital and the text. I think that it is useful to separate these modes of engagement and look at each in its own right. Of course, these are related, probably inextricably, but for the sake of analysis I’d like to focus on the way we read. While re-reading Birkerts’s article, I allowed myself to wander off through the corridors of The American Scholar website (figurative slap on the wrist from Birkerts here), and I came across this short article on psychonarratology by Jessica Love . Love writes, “a number of psychologists are investigating how we read—how we respond to narrative techniques, or track characters and their motivations from one scene to the next”. Psychonarratology differs from the description of reading given by Birkerts because “psychologists, for better or for worse, are not in the business of understanding art”. The effect studied by psychonarratologists is that of a character’s impact on the psychology of the reader. Even so, it seems to me that a lot of what has been discussed as we deconstruct the effect of digitization on the text is whether we, as readers, are losing something essential in our relationship with the text when we read it in a digital format. The psychology of this is something that seems to really interest Birkerts and that I’m not sure we can totally ignore. Perhaps it is important that we don’t completely neglect the way our relationship to digitization is psychological, the way our reading practices inform the way we internalize the texts we read.
What I would like to see is the same type of explication that Birkerts engages in of the way we read novels to take place about the way we read a digitized text. His quite slippery point about the division of the analytic and the comtemplative may be of use here. The digital, in all of its convenience and effectiveness, is easily backed by an analytic argument. Digitizing makes sense and we have little trouble arguing why. There is no reason to back it up with an argument about how it feels to read digitally, as is often done when we argue for our attachment to paper. However, I don’t think it is quite so easy to dismiss an argument like Birkerts’s that focuses on the ineffable way we are psychologically affected by our reading practices and I do think that we need to think about the other side of the coin.
And so, how do I feel when I read digitally? When I read a novel digitally, I find it more difficult to feel that I am alone in doing so. While I can imagine that others have read a paperback before me, I picture myself reading simultaneously with others when the work is digital. Similarly, as I navigate the internet, read the news on a website instead of in a newspaper, I feel that I am participating in a community in real-time. Though I agree with Birkerts that it is often more difficult to enter into the imaginary world of a novel fully when reading a digital version, this is not because the interruptions are more frequent, as he suggests, but because there is always the potential to expand on what the novel is saying by using the enumerable secondary sources immediately at my fingertips. I understand allusions more fully, I become interested in a more specific meaning of a given word. I don’t know whether I am getting more or less out of my reading when it is done digitally but I do know the digital text it not dead, or unimaginative, as Birkerts seems to believe; rather, it mediates the contents of the text in ways that produce different responses than a paperback would. This is a cursory reflection that could be developed much further. My point is that that there is a psychology of reading digitally that does not need to be premised on the utilitarian advantages of the digital.
Birkerts writes that when we enter the world of a novel, “the vital thing is this shift, which cannot take place, really, without the willingness or intent on the reader’s part to experience a change of mental state”. And the same is true when we engage with the vastness of the digital landscape. Even if we are reading one specific novel, we are entering into a mental space that we choose embrace, or not.
How do you feel when you read digitally?