“Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity and own brother of Jove? It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
– Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851
An observation on our evolving relationship with books and reading in a digital age.
Get out your QR code reader to explore this new book on reading in the age of digital media.
Ink, plastic, unique QR code, broken electronic readers, cord. Copyright © Meg Green 2015
Seven non-functioning Kindle e-readers have been bound into one complete volume. Hand drawn ‘pages’ construct a series of images eventually forming a QR code which can be read by mobile, tablet or laptop. The code links to the continuous text of one of the most iconic books ever written in the English language displayed down a single page of this non-commercial dedicated website JovesBrother.com. The title of this artwork is revealed by searching the text.
The way we read is changing… again.
People often ask me why I continue to make physical #books in an age when digital media seems to have taken over information, books and #reading. The underlying message within this question suggests a universal abandoning of traditional paper books yet the publishing industry carries on in full swing. My clients continue to bring their treasured old books to repair and rebind. I continue teach a group of students how to make Artist’s Books, they appear to be genuinely interested. How is this possible?
This argument surrounding overtaking technologies isn’t new. In fact, it’s one we have every time a new technology redraws the ways in which we perceive and communicate ideas. Photography was supposed to have killed painting, yet even now artists continue to paint. Video was supposed to have killed film. Yet cinemas are in full operation with more showings and higher ticket prices than ever. Once upon a time, books were the new ‘technology’ that threatened the practice of impressing pointy Cuneiform shapes into little clay tablets.
Clearly #RealPaperBooks aren’t somehow ‘better‘ than digital books, they’re simply a different medium of exchange. As different as a photograph is from a painting. We aren’t confused about the differences either, we see and feel the differences between a book and a #Kindle, a canvas and an illuminated screen, a stone and a sheet of paper. I don’t know anyone who confuses sitting in a dark cinema before a 20-foot-wide screen enhanced with Dolby Surround Sound with watching the telly of an evening on their sofa. Similiarly, even while some painters adopt photographic rendering techniques, we have collectively achieved the visual sophistication to distinguish a photograph from ‘The Truth’, as once worried the chattering classes who hysterically fretted over the death of the National Gallery.
We are physical creatures, our perceptions are conceived and conducted in our organic brains and bodies. We have a physical immediacy with the objects through which we express ourselves, exchange experiences and communicate ideas. Our methods continue to change and evolve but this only refines our subtlty and depth of understanding as Homo Sapiens Sapiens progress at our present shocking rate on this Pale Blue Dot.
The Codex and The Screen: Stating the Obvious
The book: a codex of turnable paper(?) pages assembled within covers comprising a set of material properties specific to its construction. The illuminated screen, whether a Kindle e-reader, mobile phone, laptop or billboard, obviously behaves in ways specific to its own material properties. The idea of Reading has traditionally implied a universality across all forms of media => Reading is reading, without regard to the format or context of the material.
The way we interact with different types of reading is now the pivot of change in digital media. Reading is no longer a universal or uniform activity irrespective of the mediating device. Marshall McLuhan taught us this decades ago, The Medium is the Massage. We ‘read’ differently from a screen, a mobile, a roadside sign, or a paper codex. It’s not just about absorbing information or finding things out, an activity well served by the internet. The aesthetic experience of reading depends on the way we access it. Memory, retention and depth depend on the material properties we select for different types of reading.
The QR (Quick Read) Code
The ‘reader’ can only access the text of ‘Jove’s Brother’ using another digital device. Scanning the QR code at the centre of this book leads to the dedicated non-commercial website JovesBrother.com which contains no tags, no adverts and is not optimised for online searches (i.e. Google). The entire text of Herman Melville’s iconic work, ‘Moby Dick’, now in the public domain, is displayed down a single column, one word on each line. Depending on how fast one scrolls, the reader can enjoy swiping, scrolling, reading, perusing, or sampling random bits of text in one long stream. Scroll away, it’s instinctive, it’s how we now read.
Why Moby Dick
I initially turned to Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ for this work as an intuitive choice which simply felt appropriate to my meaning. I suspect many artists work this way, feeling their way through an idea until the pieces click together. Only afterwards do we take a step back from what we’ve created to see why it felt somehow true to the concept. Such was the case with Moby Dick.
This work has for some years been on my Desert Island 3 Books list (contact me for the other two, if you like). The work is famously debated as one of the few compositions in any language about which no one seems to agree on its content. Ask any number of scholars, professors, casual readers or innocent bystanders what it’s ABOUT and you will get as many answers as there are readers. There are central themes, of course, but there is no consensus on the subject of the book. Is it about fishing? About the sea? A philosophical discussion about savage nature versus the devine? Yes. And no. I have my own ideas of course but that’s hardly to the point. Moby Dick is one of the most iconic books ever written. The text itself by sheer length and weight has intimidated readers who back cautiously away fearing they will never survive through this vortex of text to emerge from the back cover. The book is to reading what Ahab’s obsession is to the life. What Moby Dick is about forms part of the profound mystery of the sea and ourselves, it is archetypal.
Research on the Way we Read
A new European study led by Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University documents differences in the immersion, recall and emotional responses to a story based on whether the material is presented in traditional paper book form or via digital e-reader. The researchers found the digital experience of a Kindle does not provide the same tactile support for mental reconstruction of a story as would a paper print version.
“When you read on paper it is a physical and tactile experience,” says Mangen who also highlighted a paper published last year which found that “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on reading comprehension tests than students who read the texts digitally.”
New European study into empirical effects of digitisation on text reading shows reading is becoming more intermittent and fragmented with “empirical evidence indicating screen devices might negatively impact cognitive and emotional aspects of reading”.
The fact that sustained reading takes time strengthens our ability to maintain long term focus, improves our understanding of depth, complexity and layered meaning, and provides a more thoroughly immersive experience of reading in general. This level of sustained focus helps people, especially children at formative education levels, prepare for and negotiate complex life situations with more balanced references to deeper memory and cultural experiences.
Context is everything.