memory and form

I'm currently reading the printed version of Jeff Gomez's book-of-the-blog, Print is Dead. Gomez opens with an epigraph from Tom Stoppard:

One of the questions that haunts me - it's a question for philosophers and brain science - is, if you've forgotten a book, is that the same as never having read it?     

I find this a compelling question, although I'm not in any position to answer it. It's a question of memory and experience. The character of Marion, played by Gena Rowlands in Woody Allen's film Another Woman, asks a similar (rhetorical) question at the end of the film (I can't find the actual quote, so I'm drawing on my own less than reliable memory here). Reflecting on her experiences over the course of the story, she says something like: And I wondered if a memory is something you have or something you've lost. It seems to me that the role of memory is very different in our attitudes towards books in print and in our attitudes towards digital books. I think it's quite obvious that part of the reason we all like to keep our printed books, long after we've read them, is that they hold something of our experience of reading them - the emotions we felt, the things we imagined, our attachment to the story. The book object represents our memory of that book and by retaining the print book, we retain the memory of it - so in answer to Marion's question: yes, a memory is something you have, if you keep the printed book; and in answer to Tom Stoppard's question: yes, if you keep the book, having forgotten it won't mean you never read it because you can see it on your shelf.

Sometimes, to help ourselves remember what we liked most in a book, or what was most relevant in it, we make notes in the margin or write short references in the back cover or underline words and lines. This makes the book searchable, enabling you to return to it when your memory of its content has faded a bit and still find what was important to you. If you no longer had the book, you'd lose that memory.So the perception is: print persists; digital disappears. At least, digital remains less tangible - both during reading and after. Therefore, for some, books in print on shelves are paramount; books in digital formats and online are not totemic enough to support our labouring organic memory systems.

The truth, though, is that digital books are (potentially) more efficient repositories of our memory of the book than the print version: the metadata that you can create, store and report on as to what books you read, when you read them, etc. is a more reliable form of recall; also, books that are indexed (in the search engine sense) are more immediately and effectively searchable than ones that have been annotated in print. The irony is that, once you are outside of the reading experience, the more you have annotated a book the less readable it becomes - partly because the printed words have to compete with all the handwritten markings and partly because as time goes by and your context changes, the notes you make lose some of their sense or significance.

In chapter one, Jeff Gomez discusses the next generation of readers and writers and how the ways in which they write online for, and with, digital media will be an expression of a new engagement with creativity, rather than a corruption of the current forms of fiction. 

Today's readers (not to mention tomorrow's) are used to email, instant messaging, blogs, podcasts, and a dozen other inventions that didn't exist a decade ago. Because of all this, they will be able to intelligently absorb text on a screen (even within the form of a novel) alongside a myriad of other digital distractions, and it's an insult to them to say that they won't - not to mention that novels of the future will reflect and celebrate these changes, not provide an antidote to them... [they] will embrace the convenience and advanced usability that digital technology and electronic reading provides, and for them nothing will be lost in the equation (p27).      

This "advanced usability" is the point I am making above, in reference to the role of memory in our attitudes to digital books. Digital gives us greater access to memory, I think, than print. But the presence of print seems to make the books more memorable.Gomez's assertion that the novels of the future will "reflect and celebrate" the technological and social changes that happen to books and reading is true, I think. This same "reflect and celebrate" approach could also be applied to novels of the past and present. Two examples of novels, which, were they put online, I believe the reading experience could be enriched through changing them would be JM Coetzee's most recent novel, Diary of a Bad Year and Laurence Sterne's not so recent The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. 

Other people (including Gomez - see p144) have already cottoned onto the idea for Sterne's book. In fact, an online edition is available with hyperlinked notes and other expansions; this project does not go far enough, though, because the text as printed is preserved - it would be much more interesting to be able to reorder the purposefully meandering and tangential chapters into a new configuration, either strictly chronological (in terms of the narrative) or similarly mixed up, but in a new way. For some, this is not a good idea at all - akin to puncutating the Penelope chapter in James Joyce's Ulysses (which I've seen done, and it's marvellous). The book isn't really changed, because the original version will still exist and be authoritative, but the experience of it is.

Coetzee's book has three parallel text streams: essay-type opinions being prepared for a collection, then one stream of narrative for each of the two main characters in the novel - the author and the woman typing his manuscript. The three narratives are presented in parallel on each page, presenting a challenge for the print reader, who must, within the short course of a page, switch from the dry opinion to the old man's voice and then to the younger woman's voice. Coetzee, I'm sure, wants that juxtaposition of voices to occur on each page and has taken care to break the text so that each page can be constructed appropriately. So far, so what? Overall, I feel this technique is not wildly successful - extracts from early pages, with only two voices are on The Guardian Books and The New York Review of Books sites. Online, you'd be able to more easily engage with this technique, reading each stream at the pace that makes sense to you and the story, finding a better balance. The juxtaposition would not be lost if there were limits and parameters built into the site (or you could have none...); however, the flow of the text would be less awkward if you could navigate it in digital form.  Sacrilege to some; a more natural way to read for a generation growing up with multiplied, parallel, simultaneous reading habits.

Photo: 'bookshelf spectrum, revisited' by chotda - link