Artist Book by Meg Green
“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
Arguments about overtaking technologies aren’t new. We cycle through similar points each time a new technology redraws the ways in which we perceive and communicate ideas. Photography was supposed to have killed painting, video was supposed to have killed film. Once upon a time, books were the new ‘technology’ that threatened the practice of impressing pointy Cuneiform shapes into little clay tablets.
Clearly, digital books aren’t somehow ‘better‘ than conventional paper books, they’re simply a different medium of exchange. We aren’t confused about it either, we see and feel the differences between a conventional book and an e-reader, a paper page and a digital screen. We are physical creatures, our perceptions conceived and conducted within our organic brains and bodies. We maintain physical immediacy with the objects through which we express ourselves, exchange experiences and communicate ideas. Our methods continue to change and evolve but this helps refine our subtlety and depth of understanding, our relationship to ‘reading’, books, text, coded images and abstract perceptions.
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 an 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. However, 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 with ‘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.
Research on the changing 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 based on whether material is presented in traditional paper book form or via digital e-reader. Researchers found that digital reading is becoming more intermittent and fragmented. They also found that the time invested in sustained reading strengthens our ability to maintain long term focus, improves our understanding of depth, complexity and layered meaning, and provides a more thoroughly immersive experience. 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.
Why Moby Dick
I turned to Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ as an intuitive choice specifically appropriate to my vision for this work. Moby Dick 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 questions. There are central themes, of course, but there is no consensus on the subject of this book. Is it about fishing? About the sea? A philosophical discussion about Savage Nature versus the Divine? Yes. And no. The open, ongoing and seemingly timeless discussion on the nature of ‘Moby Dick’ embodies Melville’s intention with a stroke of ironic perfection. Melville’s text is to reading what Ahab’s obsession is to life. What ‘Moby Dick’ is about forms part of the profound mystery of the sea and ourselves, it is archetypal.