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The New Reading

By Vivek Narayanan

Lately, I’ve had trouble sleeping at night: full of strange unnameable anxieties, my head crowded with voices, disjointed thoughts, fragments of paragraphs, half-phrases. Trying to understand where this is coming from, I read from bits and pieces of writers, who themselves have written essays that feel like bits of blog posts and Wikipedia shards wired together – that argues that my brain is being completely rewired, retooled, that we are all being retooled.

Some argue that the new media has forever altered our attention span, that the experience of being completely lost and absorbed, an experience they say you only got from a printed book, has disappeared. I can’t disagree with them. I wonder seriously if I will ever again finish reading a whole book, if discrete books themselves have not secretly disappeared from the face of the earth, each smeared deftly into the other. Indeed, I even wonder if I will ever again be able to have a complete and private thought, to even remember what that is like.

What a strange set of contradictions I appear to be caught up in. The internet is the new main source of our reading, especially in India, after the old, great libraries have been left to quietly rot, after the bookstores have started to fill themselves up with hundreds of copies of the same three or four bestsellers. The internet is a place of plenitude; it caters to the finest niche taste as much as the bottom line; it places very few restrictions on length, and literary journals – like the one I co-edit – have not only been getting cheaper, but also longer and longer, carrying extended essays with little trouble. At the same time, the internet is still the place where, statistics prove, one spends, on average, not more than 50 seconds reading a page.

In the midst of all this, the book has been replaced by a universe of screens, screens of every possible type, shape, quality – screens for every need and temperament; yet, precisely because it is impossible to predict the capabilities of the device a given text will be read on, and how that device will render the text, one ends up feeling there is far less freedom to explore things like design, typography and blank space. Suddenly, nearly everything one reads is in Georgia font. The idea of publishing itself has changed forever, in ways that we have not fully grasped, in a way that even our languages have not been able to keep up with. When one hits that ‘publish’ button on one’s blog, how is this different from publishing as done by Random House or Open Magazine? We aren’t sure. Never again can a writer be kept from her readers, so it is claimed – and yet in that very noise, when every reader is also a writer, there is apparent terror, the desperation of making one’s voice heard in the clamour. Never is one lonelier than on Facebook.

Everything is now available but, at the same time, I can’t shake the feeling that everything is also missing. The soul has fled, along with the body, from the digital text, I think. It is as if, unbeknownst to our former selves, we have quietly become an alien species.

Well, says my alien self, what’s wrong with that? If the individual author has disappeared, if the world is just an endless ocean of text that you take in and spit out; when you gobble through hundreds of thousands of pages in a few seconds, alighting for a brief time on only the phrase or piece of information you need; when you have the freedom to assemble your own unique book of life, what is wrong with that? Isn’t it right to upset the hierarchy of author and reader?

Troubled by these irresolvable contradictions, these different me(s) inside of me, I finally fall asleep. I wake into a beautiful dream. It isn’t a dream of the distant past; no, far from that, just the opposite, it is a place where screens of every type proliferate – fat, thin, long, circular, triangular, held in your hand, scanned into your retina, or running in a scroll along the ceiling.

As one walks through one’s day, one reads books, but books of every type: the old novels, yes, but also new books written specifically as sound and light shows that animate along long horizontal panels; or books with soundtracks synched in; books built from automatic recombinant snippets that change as you read them; books as Excel files; and books written and rewritten by bots. Somehow in the dream, these are not disorienting at all; I have grown used to them. Writers have learnt to do truly meaningful things with these possibilities, rather than simply promote them as ideas or use them to advertise versions of the old. But the real beauty of this dream is still to come.

Stumbling on a small alcove, parting its lace curtain, I find a printed book of the kind that everyone has predicted will become extinct. Let’s say it is a book of poems; let’s say it is a shrine to all the things that are supposed to one day be obsolete: letterpress printed, thick, grainy paper, hand-cut and hand-bound, the shape not standard, the margins not standard, instead each poem, each word, according to its needs, lovingly laid out across the page. I bring it to my face and take in the smell of its pages. Importantly, it is a brand new book, a book of my own time and not a relic from the past. I run my fingers across it and feel its erotic charge; I read with my fingers as much as my eyes. Has it been made for me by a friend?

Thinking about it in a new way, I evaluate the ‘specs’ of the technology in my hand: its unique pleasures for all the senses; its ability to last a thousand years with the right paper and binding; its structural integrity; its uniquely efficient spatial organisation of data; and its opportunities for artists; its simplicity that draws your attention and holds it. I look up, and the screens are still there. I understand then that the book in my hands has become, not obsolete, but more special in its presence, and also that the interest of the screens is, equally, in being able to do something different than the printed pages. Each makes the other more real. Nothing is replaceable, nothing cancels the other out. Nothing is past, present, or future.

I am afraid that this world in which I am having my cake and eating it might disappear. Yet, as I walk around, I find the opposite happening: it grows more populated; people have taken to writing on and renewing all the media of the past. There are new books being written on stone tablets, on temple walls, on palm leaves, on long scrolls – the last of these not so different from the new web pages. Then I see the poems of the Chilean Raul Zurita, written in the sky with a skywriting plane, or in the desert with bulldozers, visible from space. As more printed books arrive in the post – far from extinct – among them are envelopes from the Trinidadian poet Nicholas Laughlin, each containing a one-line minimalist poem on a card; you wait months for the next in the sequence to arrive.

The most unrealistic thing about this world is that poets are at the centre of it; yet, haven’t they, through their various experiments, pioneered both the new media writing, the writing beyond the page, and then stubbornly, triumphantly, brought back the persistence of the printed page? I am beginning to see that the dream is not so far from the world I will soon wake up in. We are outside now. The sun is setting. I am going with my lover to the movies; it is an old-fashioned large theatre – the kind in which one can sit with hundreds and feel truly, thrillingly alone. The movie begins. But it has no pictures. Instead, on the screen scrolls text that goes on for hours, a whole novella. Curled into each other’s bodies, drinking in each others’ smell, and mingled with the smell of all the others reading simultaneously, silently in the dark, completely absorbed, my lover and I sit and read the whole thing.

Chronic + Chronic Books

This story, and others, features in the Chronic (April 2013). In this inaugural issue of the Chronic, stories range from investigations into the business of moving corpses to the rhetoric of land theft and loss; latent tensions between Africa’s most powerful nations to the soft power of the biggest satellite television provider; and the unspoken history of Rushdie’s “word crimes” to the unwritten history of PAGAD.

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