Category Archives: literacy

a leap into the post-industrial

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to India: with my brain yet furry from jetlag, I’ve yet to come to any understanding of what I experienced there, should such be possible. But while in Delhi, I picked up an enormous book entitled 60 Years of Book Publishing in India, a compendium edited by Dina N. Malhotra in 2006, which I made my way through on the flight back to New York. If you’re looking for an overview of the Indian publishing industry and how books function in modern India, as I was, this is a decent place to start. As you might expect, book publishing in India is enormously complex: 80,000 books are published a year by 16,000 different publishers in India’s 22 major languages. Translation happens between Indian languages and to and from non-Indian languages. Piracy is a major issue: a number of contributors bemoan the fact that anything published in Bengali is immediately pirated in Bangladesh (and shortly thereafter on sale in the shops of my neighborhood in Queens). It’s not hard to get any book copied and rebound in an Indian town of any size; pirated books are readily sold on the street.
While there are Indian libraries, they’re not organized or particularly supported by the government. (The pictures scattered through this are from the Asiatic Society Mumbai, the city’s largest library open to the general public.) India’s linguistic diversity – a level comparable to that of Europe – is one of its great strengths, but this complexity has also complicated efforts to systematize knowledge. A more complicating issue is the issue of literacy, a function: while the country has made astounding gains since independence, adult literacy is still around 60%. An article by Mohini Rao entitled “Publishing Children’s Books” gives a sense of the space that books in India exist in:

India is a country of extremes and contrasts where the very modern and the very old coexist. On the one hand, we are anxious to use the latest printing technology and, on the other, there are some parts of the country where people have not even seen a printed book! People are at various stages of development. The Space Age has taken over even before the Dark Age could completely recede into history. We are facing the post-literacy problems even before achieving complete literacy. We are coping with the information revolution even as we struggle with pre-industrial problems. . . . According to the report of the committee on TV software, ‘. . . Electronic media like the radio and TV have the potential of transcending the literacy barrier and therefore also the class barrier.’ TV has made it possible for the non-literate masses to have access to information, and consequently, to the fruits of development without first crossing the literacy barrier. People belonging to the pre-industrial era can take a leap into the post-industrial era without passing through the stages through which the West had to pass.

(p. 257.) The prospect of a leap to the post-literate (however that might be defined) isn’t one that’s strictly confined to India. In a broader sense, it’s an issue the entire world is facing, and an issue that if:book has been engaged with since its inception if not always consciously. We look at reading and writing through an historical context that we’ve passed through: we can only think of what comes past the book by thinking through the book. No writing on technology can be entirely immune from this perspective. (A number of the articles in 60 Years, for example, offhandedly remark that the problem of book piracy in India will be solved at that point copyright is enforced as it is in the West, a position which seems hopelessly optimistic: copyright laws can’t escape Benjamin’s avenging Angel of History.)
Much of the criticism of Sven Birkerts’s Gutenberg Elegies accused the author of being blind to the future because of the past. But Birkerts, I think, was right in a very basic sense: we can’t help but see the future through the lens of the past. The narrative of the Gutenberg Elegies is autobiographical, tracing a life constructed through books. The conversation that takes place on this blog is a product of the same forces, regardless of one’s preference for print or screen reading. We’d like the Institute’s values to be those of literate humanism: how do we account for a possible future post-literate population? The book to come belongs to everyone: it would be presumptuous to assume that everyone is like us, or should be like us.
If a lion could speak, Wittgenstein pointed out, we could not understand it. St. Jerome, patron saint of translators and noted lion-keeper, ordered his lion about, though he’s not recorded as listening to what his lion might have had to say. But understanding the coming position of the book in India and the world is probably not a matter of translation, which requires literacy, but rather one of transformation, a making of new forms. How can we start thinking about this problem in a sensible way?

generation gap?

A pair of important posts, one by Siva Vaidhyanathan and one by Henry Jenkins, call for an end to generationally divisive rhetoric like “digital immigrants” and “digital natives.”
From Siva:

Partly, I resist such talk because I don’t think that “generations” are meaningful social categories. Talking about “Generation X” as if there were some discernable unifying traits or experiences that all people born between 1964 and pick a year after 1974 is about as useful as saying that all Capricorns share some trait or experience. Yes, today one-twelfth of the world will “experience trouble at work but satisfaction in love.” Right.
Invoking generations invariably demands an exclusive focus on people of wealth and means, because they get to express their preferences (for music, clothes, electronics, etc.) in ways that are easy to count. It always excludes immigrants, not to mention those born beyond the borders of the United States. And it excludes anyone on the margins of mainstream consumer or cultural behavior.
In the case of the “digital generation,” the class, ethnic, and geographic biases could not be more obvious.

From Jenkins:

In reality, whether we are talking about games or fan culture or any of the other forms of expression which most often get associated with digital natives, we are talking about forms of cultural expression that involve at least as many adults as youth. Fan culture can trace its history back to the early part of the 20th century; the average gamer is in their twenties and thirties. These are spaces where adults and young people interact with each other in ways that are radically different from the fixed generational hierarchies affiliated with school, church, or the family. They are spaces where adults and young people can at least sometimes approach each other as equals, can learn from each other, can interact together in new terms, even if there’s a growing tendency to pathologize any contact on line between adults and youth outside of those familiar structures.
As long as we divide the world into digital natives and immigrants, we won’t be able to talk meaningfully about the kinds of sharing that occurs between adults and children and we won’t be able to imagine other ways that adults can interact with youth outside of these cultural divides. What once seemed to be a powerful tool for rethinking old assumptions about what kinds of educational experiences or skills were valuable, which was what excited me about Prensky’s original formulation
[pdf], now becomes a rhetorical device that short circuits thinking about meaningful collaboration across the generations.

reeding riting and ranting

It’s the season for literacy statistics. The reading performance of children in England has fallen from third to 19th in the world according to a major assessment. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), undertaken every five years, involved children aged about 10 in 40 countries. Attitudes to reading in England appear poor compared to those of children in many other countries, and have declined slightly since 2001. Children in England read for pleasure less frequently than their peers in many other countries.
But what does that mean? The ensuing debate about declining standards has failed to consider how use of screen and page mingle for young consumers (and creators) of culture. Time spent playing on computers is assumed to be wasted, but how much reading and writing is done on screen? My friends’ thirteen year old daughter spent lots of time on line – but was found to be writing fan fiction short stories and uploading them for peer group response, all with no parental or educational support whatsoever. The key to creating more young readers is to keep books of all kinds in the mix with the other information and entertainment sources children make use of. That’s what’s so important about schemes like Bookstart and Booktime which put exciting books into children’s hands and homes at key moments in their early lives.
As long as children can read proficiently – and the PERLS study shows a decline in interest amongst confident readers rather than plummeting literacy levels – then what really matters is not how many books they use as opposed to websites or tv programmes consumed, but how much information and imagination they glean from their entire cultural diet.
At a meeting last week of FLO, the consortium of ‘Friendly Literature Organisations’ in the UK, we presented the case that agencies like the Poetry Society, Spread the Word and the whole network of literature development agencies in the UK need have no fear at all of the digital. Their work is all about literature not books, about access, interaction and excellence; their skills as curators of their artform are exactly those most prized in the age of attention.
It’s important we keep banging the drum for the living word and look ahead to where stories and poetry go next. That’s the way to ensure that young people grow into creative readers and writers of the world they inhabit.

blogging restructures consciousness?

The following story suggests that it does. Last month, Chris Bowers of the progressive political blog MyDD, underwent a small existential crisis brought on by a ham-fisted report on public television about political blogging that bungled a number of basic facts, including Bowers’ very existence on the MyDD masthead. The result was a rare moment of introspection in an otherwise hyper-extroverted medium:

…I admit that the past three years of blogging have altered me in some rather dramatic ways that do, in fact, begin to call very existence into question. I am not referring to the ways that blogging has caused a career change, granted me political and media access that I still find shocking, almost entirely ended my participation in old social circles and presented me with new ones, allowed me to work from home, or otherwise had an impact on the day to day activities of my life. Instead, I am actually referring to an important way in which blogging has altered my very consciousness. After two and a half years of virtually non-stop blogging, my perception of myself as a distinct individual has dramatically waned. My interior monologue has virtually disappeared. I no longer have aesthetic-based epiphanies, and I almost never concern myself with examining internal passions or emotions anymore. Blogging has not just changed the activities in which I engage–the activities in which I engage in order to be a successful blogger have profoundly altered the way my mind operates and the way I conceptualize my agency in relation to others. In effect, I do not exist in the same way I once existed.

First off, I’m reminded of something Sebastian Mary was saying last month about moving beyond the idea of “authorship” and the economic and political models that undergird it (the print publishing industry, academia etc.) toward genuinely new forms of writing for the electronic landscape. “My hunch,” she says, “is that things are going two ways: writers as orchestrators of mass creativity, or writers as wielders of a new rhetoric.” Little is understood about what the collapse of today’s publishing systems would actually mean or look like, and even less about the actual experience of the new writing — that is, the new states of mind and modes of vision that are only beginning to be cracked open through the exploration of new forms. Bowers, as a spokesman for the new rhetoric (or at least one fledgeling branch of it) shines a small light on this murky area.
OngReading.jpg This also brings me back to Bob’s recent excursion into Walter Ong territory, talking about the possibility of a shift, through new networked forms of creativity, back toward something resembling the collectivity of oral cultures. Bowers and his blog might suggest the beginnings of a case study. Is this muting of the interior monologue, this waning sense of self as a “distinct individual,” the product of a kind of communication that is at once written and oral — both individualistic and collective?
Ong called the invention of writing the “technologizing of the word,” a process that fundamentally restructures human consciousness. In this history of literacy, the spoken word is something that wells up directly from the human unconscious, whereas written language is expressed through artificial (i.e. human-made) frameworks, systems of “consciously contrived, articulable rules.” These rules (and their runes) create a scaffold for the brain, which, now able to engage with complex ideas in contemplative solitude as opposed to interlocution, begins to conceive of itself as an individual entity rather than as part of a collective. Literate cultures are thus cognitively different than oral ones.
Bowers’ confession suggests that this progression is being, if not reversed, then at least confused.
The kind of communication that he and his fellow rhetoriticians have been orchestrating in recent years in the blogosphere — not to mention parallel developments elsewhere with wikis, message boards, social media, games and other inchoate forms that feel as much like public spaces as documents — has a speed and plasticity that approaches oral communication. A blog post isn’t so much a finished opus as a lump of clay that readers and other bloggers collectively shape through comments and discussion. Are these new technologies of the word (and beyond the word) restructuring consciousness?
Bowers concludes:

We political bloggers have spilled a great deal of ink on analytical, meta-blogosphere commentaries, and on how we would like to se the political process be reformed. I think we can do an equally great service–both to politics and to blogging–by spilling a little more ink on ourselves.

back to the future

John Walter, a graduate student at St. Louis University wrote to the TechRet list the other day to announce the launch of the Walter Ong Collection, a digital archive based at the SLU. I went to the site and downloaded a PDF of an early version of one of Ong’s more famous essays, “The Writer’s Audience Is Always a Fiction.” In this particular essay, Ong who made his name analyzing the difference between oral and written communication, explores how this shift changed the role of the reader. Ong makes the case that the role of the reader is quite different than the role of the “listener” in oral communication.

“The orator has before him an audience which is a true audience, a collectivity. ‘Audience” is a collective noun. There is no such collective noun for readers, nor so far as I am able to puzzle out, can there be. “Readers” is a plural. For readers do not form a collectivity acting here and now on one another, and on the one speaking to them, as members of an audience do.”

What’s so interesting here, is that it seems that the age of networked reading and writing promises to get us much closer to one of the crucial aspects of oral culture — the sense that the story teller/author and the audience/reader are joined together in a collective enterprise where the actions of each will have a direct and noticeable impact on the other.

subtitles and the future of reading

After enduring a weeks-long PR pummeling for its dealings in China, Google is hard at work to improve its image in the world, racking up some points for good after slipping briefly into evil. Recently they launched a website for the Google Foundation, the corporation’s philanthropic arm and central office of evil mitigation. Paying a visit to the site, the disillusioned among us will be pleased to find that the foundation is already sponsoring a handful of worthy initiatives, along with a grants program that donates free web advertising to nonprofit organizations. And just in case we were concerned that Google might not apply its techno-capitalist wizardry to altruism as zealously as to making profit, they just announced today they’ve named a new director for the foundation by the name of — no joke — Dr. Brilliant. So it seems the world is in capable hands.
One project in particular caught my eye in light of recent discussions about screen-based reading and genre-blending visions of the book. Planet Read is an organization that promotes literacy in India through Same Language Subtitling — a simple but apparently effective technique for building basic reading skills, taking popular visual entertainment like Bollywood movies and adding subtitles in English and Hindi along the bottom of the screen. A number of samples (sadly no Bollywood, just videos or photo montages set to Indian folk songs) can be found on Google Video. Here’s one that I particularly liked:

Watching the video — managing the interplay between moving text and moving pictures — I began to wonder whether there are possibly some clues to be mined here about the future of reading. Yes, Planet Read is designed first and foremost to train basic alphabetic literacy, turning a captive audience into a captive classroom. But in doing so, might it not also be nurturing another kind of literacy?
The problem with contemporary discussions about the future of the book is that they are mired — for cultural and economic reasons — in a highly inflexible conception of what a book can be. People who grew up with print tend to assume that going digital is simply a matter of switching containers (with a few enhancements thrown in the mix), failing to consider how the actual content of books might change, or how the act of reading — which increasingly takes place in a dyanamic visual context — may eventually demand a more dynamic kind of text.
Blurring the lines between text and visual media naturally makes us uneasy because it points to a future that quite literally (for us dinosaurs at least) could be unreadable. But kids growing up today, in India or here in the States, are already highly accustomed to reading in screen-based environments, and so they probably have a somewhat different idea of what reading is. For them, text is likely just one ingredient in a complex combinatory medium.
Another example: Nochnoi Dozor (translated “Night Watch”) is a film that has widely been credited as the first Russian blockbuster of the post-Soviet era — an adrenaline-pumping, special effects-infused, sci-fi vampire epic made entirely by Russians, on Russian soil and on Russian themes (it’s based on a popular trilogy of novels). When it was released about a year and a half ago it shattered domestic box office records previously held by Western hits like Titanic and Lord of the Rings. Just about a month ago, the sequel “Day Watch” shattered the records set by “Night Watch.”
nochnoi dozor.jpg
While highly derivative of western action movies, Nochnoi Dozor is moody, raucous and darkly gorgeous, giving a good, gritty feel of contemporary Moscow. Its plot grows rickety in places, and sometimes things are downright incomprehensible (even, I’m told, with fluent Russian), so I’m skeptical about its prospects on this side of the globe. But goshdarnit, Russians can’t seem to get enough of it — so in an effort to lure American audiences over to this uniquely Russian gothic thriller, start building a brand out of the projected trilogy (and presumably pave the way for the eventual crossover to Hollywood of director Timur Bekmambetov), Fox Searchlight just last week rolled the film out in the U.S. on a very limited release.
What could this possibly have to do with the future of reading? Well, naturally the film is subtitled, and we all know how subtitles are the kiss of death for a film in the U.S. market (Passion of the Christ notwithstanding). But the marketers at Fox are trying something new with Nochnoi Dozor. No, they weren’t foolish enough to dub it, which would have robbed the film of the scratchy, smoke-scarred Moscow voices that give it so much of its texture. What they’ve done is played with the subtitles themselves, making them more active and responsive to the action in the film (sounds like some Flash programmer had a field day…). Here’s a description from an article in the NY Times (unfortunately now behind pay wall):

…[the words] change color and position on the screen, simulate dripping blood, stutter in emulation of a fearful query, or dissolve into red vapor to emulate a character’s gasping breaths.

And this from Anthony Lane’s review in the latest New Yorker:

…the subtitles, for instance, are the best I have encountered. Far from palely loitering at the foot of the screen, they lurk in odd corners of the frame and, at one point, glow scarlet and then spool away, like blood in water. I trust that this will start a technical trend and that, from here on, no respectable French actress will dream of removing her clothes unless at least three lines of dialogue can be made to unwind across her midriff.

It might seem strange to think of subtitling of foreign films as a harbinger of future reading practices. But then, with the increasing popularity of Asian cinema, and continued cross-pollination between comics and film, it’s not crazy to suspect that we’ll be seeing more of this kind of textual-visual fusion in the future.
Most significant is the idea that the text can itself be an actor in a perfomance: a frontier that has only barely been explored — though typography enthusiasts will likely pillory me for saying so.

the bible on dvd: another weird embodiment of the book on screen

The bible has long been a driver of innovation in book design, and this latest is no exception: an ad I saw today on TV for the complete King James Bible on DVD. Not a film, mind you, but an interactive edition of the old and new testaments built around a graphical rendering of an old bible open on a lectern that the reader, uh viewer, uh… reader controls. Each page is synched up to a full-text narration in the “crystal clear, mellow baritone” of Emmy-winning Bible reader Stephen Johnston, along with assorted other actors and dramatic sound effects bringing the stories to life.

There’s the ad to the right (though when I saw it on BET the family was black). You can also download an actual demo (Real format) here. It’s interesting to see the interactivity of the DVD used to mimic a physical book — even the package is designed to suggest the embossed leather of an old bible, opening up to the incongruous sight of a pair of shiny CDs. More than a few analogies could be drawn to the British Library’s manuscript-mimicking “Turning the Pages,” which Sally profiled here last week, though here the pages replace each other with much less fidelity to the real.
There’s no shortage of movie dramatizations aimed at making the bible more accessible to churchgoers and families in the age of TV and the net. What the makers of this DVD seem to have figured out is how to combine the couch potato ritual of television with the much older practice of group scriptural reading. Whether or not you’d prefer to read the bible in this way, with remote control in hand, you can’t deny that it keeps the focus on the text.
Last week, Jesse argued that it’s not technology that’s causing a decline in book-reading, but rather a lack of new technologies that make books readable in the new communications environment. He was talking about books online, but the DVD bible serves just as well to illustrate how a text (a text that, to say the least, is still in high demand) might be repurposed in the context of newer media.
Another great driver of innovation in DVDs: pornography. No other genre has made more creative use of the multiple camera views options that can be offered simulataneously on a single film in the DVD format (I don’t have to spell out what for). They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and what greater necessities than sex and god? You won’t necessarily find the world’s most elegant design, but it’s good to keep track of these uniquely high-demand areas as they are consistently ahead of the curve.

killing the written word?

A November 28 Los Angeles Times editorial by American University linguistics professor Naomi Barron adds another element to the debate over Google Print [now called Google Book Search, though Baron does not use this name]: Baron claims that her students are already clamoring for the abridged, extracted texts and have begun to feel that book-reading is passe. She writes:
Much as automobiles discourage walking, with undeniable consequences for our health and girth, textual snippets-on-demand threaten our need for the larger works from which they are extracted… In an attempt to coax students to search inside real books rather than relying exclusively on the Web for sources, many professors require references to printed works alongside URLs. Now that those “real” full-length publications are increasingly available and searchable online, the distinction between tangible and virtual is evaporating…. Although [the debate over Google Print] is important for the law and the economy, it masks a challenge that some of us find even more troubling: Will effortless random access erode our collective respect for writing as a logical, linear process? Such respect matters because it undergirds modern education, which is premised on thought, evidence and analysis rather than memorization and dogma. Reading successive pages and chapters teaches us how to follow a sustained line of reasoning.
As someone who’s struggled to get students to go to the library while writing their papers, I think Baron’s making a very important and immediate pedagogical point: what will professors do after Google Book Search allows their students to access bits of “real books” online? Will we simply establish a policy of not allowing the online excerpted material to “count” in our tally of student’s assorted research materials?
On the other hand, I can see the benefits of having a student use Google Book Search in their attempt to compile an annotated bibliography for a research project, as long as they were then required to look at a version of the longer text (whether on or off-line). I’m not positive that “random effortless access” needs to be diametrically opposed to instilling the practice of sustained reading. Instead, I think we’ve got a major educational challenge on our hands whose exact dimensions won’t be clear until Google Book Search finally gets going.
Also: thanks to UVM English Professor Richard Parent for posting this article on his blog, which has some interesting ruminations on the future of the book.

google is sued… again

This time by publishers. Penguin Group USA, McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, Simon & Schuster and John Wiley & Sons. The gripe is the same as with the Authors’ Guild, which filed suit last month alleging “massive copyright infringement.” Publishers fear a dangerous precedent is set by Google’s scanning of books to construct what amounts to a giant card catalogue on the web. Google claims “fair use” (see rationale), again pointing out that for copyrighted works only tiny “snippets” of text are displayed around keywords (though perhaps this is not yet fully in effect – I was searching around in this book and was able to look at quite a lot).
Google calls the publishers’ suit “near-sighted.” And it probably is. The benefit to readers and researchers will be tremendous, as will (Google is eager to point out) the exposure for authors and publishers. But Google Print is undoubtedly an earth-shaking program. Look at the reaction in Europe, where alarm bells rung by France warned of cultural imperialism, an english-drenched web. Heads of state and culture convened and initial plans for a European digital library have been drawn up.
What the transatlantic flap makes clear is that Google’s book scanning touches a deep nerve, and the argument over intellectual property, signficant though it is, distracts from a more profound human anxiety — an anxiety about the form of culture and the shape of thoughts. If we try to grope back through the millennia, we can find find an analogy in the invention of writing.
The shift from oral to written language froze speech into stable strings that could be transmitted and stored over distance and time. This change not only affected the modes of communication, it dramatically refigured the cognitive makeup of human beings (as McLuhan, Ong and others have described). We are currently going through another such shift. The digital takes the freezing medium of text and throws it back into fluidity. Like the melting of polar ice caps, it unsettles equilibriums, changes weather patterns. It is a lot to adjust to, and we wonder if our great-great-grandchildren will literally think differently from us.
But in spite of this disorienting new fluidity, we still have print, we still have the book. And actually, Google Print in many ways affirms this since its search returns will point to print retailers and brick-and-mortar libraries. Yet the fact remains that the canon is being scanned, with implications we can’t fully perceive, and future uses we can’t fully predict, and so it is understandable that many are unnerved. The ice is really beginning to melt.
In Phaedrus, Plato expresses a similar anxiety about the invention of writing. He tells the tale of Theuth, an Egyptian deity who goes around spreading the new technology, and one day encounters a skeptic in King Thamus:

…you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a power opposite to that which they in fact possess. For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it; they will not exercise their memories, but, trusting in external, foreign marks, they will not bring things to remembrance from within themselves. You have discovered a remedy not for memory, but for reminding. You offer your students the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom. They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

As I type, I’m exhibiting wisdom without the reality. I’ve read Plato, but nowhere near exhaustively. Yet I can slash and weave texts on the web in seconds, throw together a blog entry and send it screeching into the commons. And with Google Print I can get the quote I need and let the rest of the book rot behind the security fence. This fluidity is dangerous because it makes connections so easy. Do we know what we are connecting?

Children and Books: Forming a World-View

When I think about the part books played (and still play) in forming my world-view, I have to think about them as tethered to a set of circumstances. It is impossible to say, for example, whether it was Gardner’s Art Through the Ages that awakened my passion for visual art, or my teacher Gretchen Whitman, who introduced the book to me and led me through it.
The book is part of a matrix that is difficult to parse. How is one’s world-view formed? Certainly books are a part of the process, but maybe they function more as “tools” then as “beings.” Insofar as they are extensions of the people or circumstances that drove us to them. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that very few of these lists are the same.
It’s interesting that nobody confesses that children’s books formed their world-view. I was profoundly influenced by the books I read when I was a child. The Little House on the Prairie series, and the Wizard of Oz still resonate with me. Dorothy and Laura Ingalls were pioneers–girl scouts, who were always prepared and never complained. They were independent, pragmatic survivors. I’m not saying this is the best collection of virtues one could strive for, but, nevertheless I recognize them in myself and think they were engendered, to some extent, by those books. Also, I must mention the fantastic strangeness of Dr. Seuss (who prepared me for surrealism), Maurice Sendack, Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Anderson.
Children’s books are there at the beginning, digging into our consciousness. The fact that children must, initially, be read to, illuminates something about how the book functions for humans. My son is 14 months old and he loves books. That is because his grandmother sat down with him when he was six months old and patiently read to him. She is a kindergarten teacher, so she is skilled at reading to children. She can do funny voices and such. My son doesn’t know how to read, he barely has a notion of what story is, but his grandmother taught him that when you open a book and turn its pages, something magical happens–characters, voices, colors–I think this has given him a vague sense of how meaning is constructed. My son understands books as objects printed with symbols that can be translated and brought to life by a skilled reader. He likes to sit and turn the pages of his books and study the images. He has a relationship with books, but he wouldn’t have that if someone hadn’t taught him. My point is, even after you learn to read, the book is still part of a complex system of relationships. It is almost a matter of chance, in some ways, which books are introduced to you and opened to you by someone.
I think people who are resistant to electronic books worry that this intimacy will be lost in a non-paper format. But clearly, it’s not the object itself, it’s the meaning brought to it by and through people. The medium won’t really change that.