10 June 2011

On Noondles

I almost bought a Barnes & Noble Nook. The Nook is one of those devices that allow one at somewhat reduced prices and rates to download books, newspapers and journals for reading now and in the future and on the go. These devices are virtual libraries, and rather than gaze up and down the rows and shelves of books in personal or public libraries or book stores searching for a specifically desired volume, or even just browsing at random for a work that catches the eye, on these devices one scrolls through their present downloads to select the next book, or can view digital images of the covers and even sample pages and tables of contents of volumes that are available for instant downloading. Rumors abound that these contrivances can store several hundred volumes and a wall full of journals, magazines and newspapers. Now, I tend to travel heavy laden, packing in my bag at any time several books (of varying genres) and a number of various journals to satisfy a wide variety of occasions where reading material may be required. For the sake of my shoulders and back I considered purchasing one of these rather small and light devices. They weigh less than a pound usually, are very thin, and no bigger than the size of a good trade paperback. 
I see people all about these days reading on their Nooks and Kindles (the Amazon.com version of the e-reader). I think the Apple iPad can also serve as a reading platform. People read on these devices in a variety of locations: of course, in airports and on airplanes, but also at concerts, on trains, even in taxi cabs and automobiles. They are becoming ubiquitous sights in the ubiquitous coffee houses. Actually, I think people read on these devices in locations everywhere exactly as they read bookseverywhere. And perhaps this is a good thing for reading! Perhaps libraries will soon check out kindles on which a certain number of books have been downloaded for a small fee. As an educator I am pleased to see so many people reading, even on these devices. 
But maybe the preposition ‘on’ intrigues me here: that is, the reading is mediated. People do not read the book/journal or whatever else is on their Noondle (an neologism for the two major e-reader devices), the way that I, say, read a book. When I read, I do not do so on a device, I read in a book on an airplane, train or park bench. I hold the book open in my hands and do not grasp delicately with my fingertips a device on which the book appears. But today, when people refer to their reading they say that they are reading this or that book ‘on’ the Noondle, and they do not say that they are reading ‘the’ book. If I observed someone reading a book on a noondle and I wanted to browse the book, I cannot imagine how I might accomplish this with any degree of success. 
The book has become an accessory to the Noondle. Now I am aware that I am addressing my semantic problem, but language does reflect something about thought, and the language here reflects that there exists some mediation between the book and the reader. I recognize at well that the newness of the devices provokes the forms of language with which people refer to it. This may change. But for now, I am caught in the preposition. 
Naturally, there is always something mediating between book and reader, often it is culture, but the Noondle increases and confounds the degree of separation.  I wear glasses, but they are not a screen behind which the book appears but a means by which the book in my hands or on my desk top itself may be distinctly seen. When I open the book my hands touch the pages; the quality of paper differs between books. Sometimes, I run my fingers across the words on the page, not as a vision-impaired person might use Braille, but as a means of establishing contact with the objects with which I want to commune, the way I might reach out and touch the arm of my companion with whom I am engaged in intimate talk. Sometimes as I read my thumb accidentally covers a word or two along the book’s margins.  With my pens and pencils I engage in conversation with the text, and as I write I run the edge of my hand physically across the page. I touch the book. I graze the words. Sometimes, alas, I spill coffee on a page; when it dries it leaves a stain on the page that I will recall when I return to the book. Once I suffered a nosebleed (how appropriate it would have been had  it occurred during my reading of Cyrano de Bergerac or Tristram Shandy), and now the pages hold my DNA. When my reading session closes for the moment, I place a marker on the page. For this purpose I choose some personal itema note, a handcrafted bookmark I received as a gift, a bill I must remember to pay. I read once that a librarian discovered in a returned book a very fried egg that must have served someone as a reading placeholder. Some people fold the page at its corners to mark their place, but I would not subject my books to this intentional injury. But I note the page, close the book and place it carefully on a surface to await my return. Or I place it back in the bag with its companionsthe journals and magazines and other books I have brought along to read. Walt Whitman said “Who touches this book touches a man,” and in my life I have taken this declaration seriously.  I do not feel that I either can or want to apply this designation to what appears on the Noondle. 
On the device (the Noondle) the page and the words lie behind a screen, not unlike on the computer on which I even now write (and read what I wrote), though I can certainly carry the Noondle closer to my eyes than I can the computer screen. For the most part, when I read on the computer I am constrained to remain in a upright, seated position, and sometimes scrolling down the screen makes me a bit dizzy, even sometimes nauseous. I suppose I can sit in a chair or lie in my bed or hammock with the Noondle, but I am always physically separated from the words by the screen nonetheless. I know that it is meaning I seek in the reading (and I derive pleasure from that activity obviously), but there is something quite tactile about meaning-making from a book that at present I cannot imagine enjoying on the Noondle. When I read I move in and out of the text that I hold in my hands: the paper pages are, after all, porous. With a book, I can leaf through the pages to see when the chapter ends. I can flip back to see where I have been and with whom I have spent the time, all the while holding my place in the present. In the book, there are facing pages and I can move my eyes back and forth with ease in the meaning making process. But when I read my Noondle I not know how to find where I have marked what I consider a particular image or phrase that seems to me repeated in the section of the book which I am now reading.  I don’t know how to talk to the book or to converse with myself in the book on the Noondle.
 And as for cherished magazines and journals?  When I pick up a journal I love to hold it in my hands and cascade with curiosity through the pages. I like the sound and the very slight breeze the movement produces. I take note of articles to which I want soon to return and those that I think might wait a day or week or two. I like to look at the bright, color pictures that sometimes fill a whole page. On the Noondle there is no leafing through a journal to glimpse at the articles published, or to glance at the graphics or pictures throughout. 
There is something too linear about these Noondles that does not accord with or complement my practice of reading. On these devices one seems expected to begin at the beginning and work one’s way through to the end. There is no hyper to the text. On the Noondle reading has been transformed into yet another product of/for consumption rather a process in which to be actively and physically engaged. On the Noondle I am meant to read the text from start to finish in strict linear fashion and without pause, symbolic or otherwise. Reading on the Noondles I have little opportunity for recursive practices that I know are necessary to reading and enhance the experience of it. Rather, the reader seems constrained to finish rather than to experience the text.   
Oh, this might be the Luddite in me, and it might be that at this time next year I may throw my fully loaded Noondle in the empty bag. But I think that were I to do so, and if I sat down in the plane, or on the train or at the table in the coffee house, and pull out my reading material, (and though of course one always reads alone,so to speak) on my Noondle I would remain quite isolated, and no one would glance over to see what I am reading, take a measure of my character, and even offer to open a conversation about my reading material. Holding no book and no man—nor woman neitherI will talk with no man, no, nor woman neither.


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