By Kerr Houston
Sometimes an apparently imminent death sparks a heightened interest in what, exactly, is being lost. Take, for example, the common codex. As Jonathan Wilcox notes in his introduction to Scraped, Stroked and Bound (a rewarding new collection of materially engaged interpretations of medieval manuscripts published by Brepols), polemical pieces of writing that fret about the death of the traditional book are now common. And yet, Wilcox acutely adds, such jeremiads have also “encouraged renewed attention to the specific properties of books.” Worries about the purported demise of the book, in other words, have led to spirited defenses of the medium – and to a more nuanced study of the experience of readers who pick up and then read a book.
To be sure, the close attention being paid to the material aspects of books is not motivated solely by a desire to celebrate an allegedly endangered medium. After all, there have always been readers who are openly intrigued by the scent or the dimensions or the feel of their books. Add to that fact the developing scholarly interest in phenomenology and the emergence of thing theory, and… well, the current interest in the material properties of books is not exactly surprising. Nevertheless, much recent work on the subject of the book is in fact framed in terms of potential loss: or, more specifically still, to what might be lost when texts are digitized. In a 2007 meditation on virtual codices, for instance, Johanna Drucker argued that digital simulations of turning pages trivialize the tactile process of reading an actual book. And now Wilcox advances a similar view, alleging that “things get lost in digital reproduction… digital facsimiles fail to engage senses other than sight, such as the binding of a book, the heft of the volume, the smell of the parchment, or the sound of the pages.” Confronted with terabytes of scanned images, then, such scholars are reminded of what they have left behind – and are urging a return to the original source.
Such a development does make a simple sort of sense. After all, as Robert Darnton observed in his 2008 The Case for Books, the physical attributes of a book – the texture of its paper, say, or the fingerprint of a pressman, or the lightness of a duodecimo – offer clues about the place of that text in a larger social and economic context. By contrast, laptop screens and mobile devices largely efface, in their sleek manufactured elegance, such clues. They may reproduce the text, but they retain little of the sensory specificity of a piece of vellum or a yellowed page. They don’t tear, or flake, or curl. They don’t rustle. Consequently, if (as Sarah Kay and Nancy Vine Darling have argued) some of the effect of a medieval codex made of parchment derives from its origins as a flayed animal skin and lies in the imperfections that characterize such a support, a digital recreation is irredeemably partial. That is to say, digital technology may be functional, but it is also limited. It fails, from such a point of view, to engage the whole body. It is merely visual: all surface, and no substance.
Point taken. Digitized images can seem sterile, or inert, or immaterial. But wait a minute: is it thus fair to claim, as Wilcox does, that they fail to engage senses other than sight? After all, over the past decade digital technologies have been utterly transformed. Due to interactive technologies and touch screens, we no longer merely look at screens and digital images, but regularly interact with them. We swipe or type; we tap or pinch. We become deeply familiar with the whoosh of a sent text message, and we strike up conversations with Siri. We peer at a section of a digitized page from the British Library’s online catalogue of illuminated manuscripts, and then slowly run our finger across the scroll wheel of our mouse to reveal the remainder. And so on: even if digital technology doesn’t precisely replicate the experience of reading a traditional book, it’s evident that it can – rather like a book – foster a range of sensory experiences beyond the visual.
This seems to be especially true, in fact, in a tactile sense. After all, as Helen Briggs pointed out in an article for BBC Health, the average mobile phone user touches her device 150 times a day. Unsurprisingly, then, consumers have grown subtly attuned to the raised keys on a BlackBerry, or the sheer heft of a Galaxy smartphone, or the feel of a vibrating phone in their pocket. Indeed, even contemporary poetry has begun to acknowledge the resonance of such sensations. In her 2013 poem “With No Desire to Call Anyone I Reach for My Phone,” Rachel B. Glaser wrote:
I feel for its smooth screen
in each of my four pockets
I pick up a jacket and can tell from the weight
in fabric it makes a boxy shape
But of course it’s not only poets who have remarked on the phenomenon. Specialists in what is often called user experience have also become deeply interested in how, exactly, users handle their mobile phones. Typical of this approach is a 2013 essay by Steven Hoober, which draws on empirical observations in detailing a range of ways in which users hold or handle their cell phones. The one-handed ideal imagined by designers, Hoober concludes, ought thus to yield to the complexity of lived use.
And lived use, when it comes to digital technology, is in fact complex. Media theorists such as Sherry Turkle have emphasized, for example, ways in which users of technology develop a deep or even unconscious connection to the tools that they use. Objects such as phones can become companions in life experience: an idea echoed in an October essay by Jenna Worthem, who realized that her phone is usually the first thing she reaches for in the morning, and the last she uses before going to bed. But the relationship between users and their mobile devices is not merely psychological and tactile; it’s also, we’re learning, biological. A recent study headed by Dr. James Meadow indicated that mobile phones regularly carry millions of microbiomes, and meaningfully reflect the microbial profile of their users. Indeed, more than 80% of the common organisms that constitute our bacterial fingerprints can be found on our cell phone screens. “We share,” Meadow thus concluded, “more than an emotional connection with our phones – they carry our personal microbiome.”
So the digital, it seems, is not merely visual: rather, it’s engaged, and sullied, and literally brought alive by our finger. But is that really even a surprise? After all, the very word digital has two distinct meanings: it refers both to the realm of computer data and to the fingers with which we operate those computers. Digital technology is, then, the realm of the finger – a point that Darnton has also acknowledged. “We find our way through the world,” Darnton contended in 2008, “by means of a sensory disposition that the Germans call Fingerspitzengefühl. If you were trained to guide a pen with your index finger, look at the way young people use their thumbs on mobile phones, and you will see how technology penetrates a new generation, body and soul.” And it does so not through vision, but through the finger.
Why insist, then, that the digital fails to engage senses other than sight? Sure, books are great, and they engage us in specific ways; they may never be matched by digital facsimiles. But, still, for better or for worse, it seems clear that in this era of digitization our bodies are being engaged in novel ways. And that realization suggests in turn that perhaps the relationship between the proliferation of digitized texts and the increasingly common celebrations of the heft and smell of traditional books is not a merely negative one. That is, perhaps our interest in the materiality of books is not inspired solely by the cold realization of what digital facsimiles cannot offer us. Perhaps, rather, the very novelty and complexity of our emergent relations with digital devices – the appeal of a swipe; the click of a mouse – has attuned us to a range of sensations that we long overlooked, or occasionally took for granted. Far from prompting a loss in tactility, perhaps digital devices are reminding us of the importance of touch.
In Scraped, Stroked and Bound, the library conservator Gary Frost suggests that our “perception of the physical qualities of the medieval book is obscured by our immersion in a flood of manufactured goods.” But maybe it has actually been heightened by our intricate and tactile relations with our phones, and e-readers, and laptops. After all, medieval manuscripts were also manufactured, in the traditional sense of the term, as they were literally made by hands. The same hands, that is, that now bring text into being by typing and tapping, and that allow us to know the world around us, and books, and screens.
Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore; he is the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (2012), and of several articles on medieval art.