Ways Of Seeing Ways Of Reading

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Text and book are two different things, I would argue that a book is just a physical form that a text may take, however the text is something organic, natural, different for every person. The text doesn’t have to be understood as a literary work only but as a process. In the chapter “From Work to Text” of The Rustle of Language, Roland Barthes establishes a differentiation between those two concepts. According to him (Barthes, 1971), our cultural background is woven of “quotations, references, echoes and cultural languages” that traverse through the work and influence our comprehension of the text. Consequently, text is defined as a methodological field by which we create our own understanding rather than a portion of a book, which is the work.

The text cannot be the end product by itself, it requires action from a participant to be finished. During the mid-20th-century, many theorists as Barthes and Derrida, started questioning how we create meaning and how we understand a text. For first time, the role of the writer was questioned, and the reader became the main character having a voice, a role. The readers take decisions, check other books, write notes and start a dialogue between what is said and their own faculties. They don’t only read but also play the text as if it was a music partiture and as a result, reading becomes decoding. The turns have changes, readers have an active role and the writer takes a secondary position. As an illustration, in Take Care of Yourself (2007), Sophie Calle received a break up email from her then partner. She decided to share it with 102 women asking them to help her understand this email. All these women had different backgrounds and professions and hence they brought up different points of view on how they understood/read it according to their personal experience.

Therefore, who determines what has to be comprehended from this letter, was not the writer (her ex-boyfriend) but the readers (each of this women) who have experienced and understood the letter in different ways. b. It’s not you, it’s me In case you haven’t noticed it yet, this it is all about the reader and the synergy created with the text. As previously stated, the text is a guide and not the end product and therefore the reader at play, with its previous knowledge and experiences, is who makes the difference. The text can be seen as a “constellation-like construction”, as defined by Kenneth Goldsmith (2011) in Uncreative Writing, establishing invisible connections with references, quotations and any previous knowledge the participant has about the subject. Accordingly, the comprehension of it will vary from any previous reading that has been made of the same text. As a collaboration between text and reader, each of the dots in the constellation may be found and materialised in the marginalia. The annotations in the margins of a book represent the thoughts and understanding from a different reader and/or encounter with the book.

The marginal notes are the remains from the reading experience, thoughts and connections that have been made with previous knowledge, which is then put in writing. The participant immersion is unique and personal, the interpretation can be very similar to someone else’s, but it will always be different. Someone’s understanding cannot be mimicked by any other reader or by themselves, the impression of what you read will be different to the first time that was done. A practitioner who explored this subject is Kajsa Dahlber with A Room of One’s Own/A Thousand Libraries (2006) by compiling all the marginalia that readers left in the copies of Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own from a Swedish library. In this new version of Woolf’s essay, her words are reframed within a constellation of collective responses, put together across a period of nearly half a century. In this dialogue between reader and writer enhances the experience for the following participant and acts as documentation of previous thoughts of what is being read, what is important and what not for a different reader. Consequently, I argue marginalia should be valued as an equal to the main text of a book and therefore not to be ignored but considered an evolving archive with multiplicity of voices and echoes from other users. According to Matthew Stadler (2015) in Composition as publication – and – what are margins, the margins allow a coexistence of thoughts in a “forever negotiated” space of discussion of “contradictory voices”. Therefore, I understand the margins as the space where the actions from the readers become tangible and the interpretations take shape.

Annotations and additional information you may find alongside of the text change your impression, whether adding or extracting context, and it may become decisive for the interpretation of the reader.c. We: as spiders I like to think about the reader as a spider sitting in the middle of a web, where everything happens and builds around it. A spider that slowly weaves a web of references and experiences that grows slowly but constantly. However, the text allows a plurality of voices to bloom at the same time, and therefore there is not one single reader with their unique constellation, but rather a never-ending collection of them. By allowing different realities to coexist in a same space (different interpretations, challenging, supporting or undermining what is said) the reading experience is enhanced and readers bring their faculties into play, thus engaging further with the text. Marginal notes that live alongside the body of text create a dual reading and start a dialogue between the text and the readers, a negotiated conversation in which every voice has something to say. By looking at the annotations and supplementary information provided by other readers, you can trace their interest and follow their line of thought. Maybe even give attention to some detail that otherwise would have escaped your eye.

Readers became users and as a consequence their expectations from the text have changed. They get easily distracted jumping from text to text, from tab to tab, to come back later to what they were reading earlier (if they ever do so). Moreover, the hypertext has created a space where the readers are allowed to play an active role deciding what and how they read. The invention of the Internet has permitted the users to construct their own narrative in a much easier way by making decisions and creating links suitable for their needs, and therefore the web functions as an endless work in progress.

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The user has become a “virtual flaneur”, wandering the web, looking for the right content as suggested Goldsmith (2011). More importantly, the reader has the agency to decide what is better for their reading and weave an expanded web of references. By expanding the web, the reader is allowed to see many other options that were unseen previously, challenging and questioning what was thought. However, this is not something completely new. Think about a newspaper. The way we read it is different to a book and still very similar to a website. The reader jumps from one article to another while skipping a few in the middle. Similarly, with the internet, readers have learnt to manage, pick and collect information without feeling they need to read linearly as they would with a printed book. Nevertheless, the introduction of the internet brought another change which has also affected the way users approach the information they find, e. g. display, filter or aggregate content to what they were reading. When, how, and where we read makes a difference on the perception of a text, and as Lupton (2006) argues in The Birth of the User, “how texts are used becomes more important than what they mean”. Instead of leaving annotations on a book, now we comment on websites. Comments, likes, tagging other people… have become the marginalia of the internet. Even though taking a different and less tangible aesthetic, they allow a space to dialogue, share knowledge and responses to what was published. In fact, as argued by Ludovico (2012), the power for digital publishing lies on its “superior networking capabilities” and not only by hosting related content to what you read elsewhere but on “other humans willing to share their knowledge online”. This willingness to share knowledge in the hyperspace is the same we find in a library where multiple people read a same book in a different way and leave their notes as an unconscious: I have been here, I read this book, and this is my contribution to it. b. Goodbye, paper?

The active reader seems intrinsic of the digital medium where taking decisions and to follow your own path seems easier and natural. However, this doesn’t mean that it is an exclusive aspect from the hyperspace, in fact it was born in the printed book. Pale Fire (1962) by Vladimir Nabokov, pre-dates the internet although it can be seen as a prototype of hypertext. Nabokov uses footnotes to build several directions in which the readers can immerse in. Moving back and forth following links, the participants decide what route they are interested in, working as a primitive hypertext system that reminds us to an “analogue” website. Regardless of what path the reader decides to follow, the user can have an endlessly stimulating literary experience. This work was perceived as an experimental, ground-breaking book by enhancing the literary experience. Besides, it allowed multiple readings of the work by interlocking elements to tell many stories at once. Another piece from the same period is Composition No. 1 (1960) by Marc Saporta, an unbounded book confined in a box. Each page has a self-contained narrative, giving to the reader agency to decide the order they read the book and when to stop. The way users read this book nowadays, raises questions about user-centric, non-linear driven ways of reading – native traits from the hyperspace. The reason that these works were, and still are, relevant is because they reflected a change on the role of the readers, giving them authority to collaborate with the writer on the production of the literary work. Currently, the way we read them equals to the reading experience you can obtain in the hyperspace. In fact, in 1969, IBM used Pale Fire for a demo of an early hypertext-like system (which didn’t go through in the end). Therefore, Nabokov not only anticipated the upcoming invention of the internet but also created the one of the first books of the genre, being seen afterwards as “father” of the hypertext.

One more time

Paper being the oldest medium, has been questioned all through the years and many were to be the one “to kill it”. In 1984, an imaginative and futuristic vision was elaborated by Octave Uzanne and Albert Robida in their illustrated story La fin des livres. A few decades after, in 1910 Villemard created a series of postcards showing a speculative vision of Paris in 2000. In 1930, Bob Brown wrote his manifesto The Readies, arguing that “the written word hasn’t kept up with the age” and it should be reinvented using a new technology which reminds to the microfilm. Afterwards, appeared the radio, later on the television and finally computers and the Internet. The Paperless Officeagain was to be the one that would turn paper into history. With the invention of every technology the printed medium has been questioned over and over. However, in a fight for the prevalence who would win, paper or hyperspace? Print allows the readers to stop, reflect on what has been said, take notes – without having to think on the battery of their device with also offering better readability of the text. In addition, it is able to juxtapose different types of content i. e. quick hand-made notes in the margins next to carefully curated printed content. Not only that, paper can be used to preserve substantial part of the digital culture that could be lost with a fault of the system or by becoming and an obsolete technology in a few years, which wouldn’t change by a click in a website.

By contrast, hyperspace can present huge amounts of information without using physical space – as would a printed copy – while exploiting the non-linear narrative and being able to quick update the information at any time and great skills for search and indexing. Moreover, the production of printed books is expensive and involves long processes and investment of time and space, while in the internet can be done instantly.

Therefore, while the paper has to learn its endless possibilities of indexing and searching from the digital medium, the web relies on the long experience that the print medium has on layout and content management. Nevertheless, according to Alessandro Ludovico (2012) “paper and pixel seem to have become complementary to each other”, the printed page has mutated from prevalent medium on its own to share that position. Instead of fighting for the primacy of the medium, they can learn from the strengths of the other. Thus, whereas digital is built for speed, print ensures more stability to content – and they are both here to stay. b. A secret formula? There is not a clear answer to whether one day paper will actually die, disappear and be relegated to history and no secret formula to “save” the printed medium. However, even if that moment is to happen, there is many ways in which the printed medium can be “re-invented” and exploit until then. Florian Cramer (2015) considers a book “as a symbolic form since it is able to transcend media and forms”, books are in constant evolution and interacting with other technologies and therefore the interface adjusts to these changes. Many sectors have had to adapt to the digital age previously, and now is the time for publishing.

For instance, the music industry suffered a huge loss when the mp3 format came out and the sales of CDs noticeably decreased. Despite, they decided to focus in the experience of the user by making it exclusive, special, and make more profit from concerts and tours. Equally, the printed medium needs take advantage of its materiality and physicality and exploit its performative aspect. Consequently, publishers are “increasingly presenting its products as valuable objects and collector’s items” (Ludovico, 2012).

Particularly, I am interested in what Alexander Starre (2016) calls metamedialbooks as a way to exploit these characteristics and enhance the reading experience. Considering that the written text is as important as the design decisions that conform the book i. e. fonts, layout, format, colours… the book is thought and designed as a whole. Two books that have embraced this approach are The Fifty Year Sword (2012) by Danielewski (all visual and material features are considered part of the literary work) and Tree of Codes (2011), by Jonathan Safran Foer (cut outs and over layering sentences become essential part of the work). These examples enhance the reading experience using an organic design that is not independent to the story and consider the book experience as a whole. By converging writing with design, all the components of the book contribute with different grades of meaning to be decoded by the readers. Someone could argue that this is the same concept behind concrete poetry and therefore, it is nothing special. However, the way I understand the concept of metamedial here goes further and not also thinking on the design of the text but including all the aspects of the book, exploiting its materiality and physicality. Thus, metamedial books can be a good method to explore how to allow different realities to coexist while enhancing the reading experience in the post-digital era.

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