digital media and our mental libraries

Two recent posts on digital media have got me thinking:

First, this post at @craigmod talks about “formless content” and “definite content” and how this relates to printed books vs. e-readers. Mod’s goal is to come up with a way to determine what type of content should be digitalized. It’s an interesting discussion about how our perception of publishing might and/or should change in the digital age, and relates specifically to the ipad.

Biblioklept responds here, with some valid questions of a few of Mod’s ideas.

I have just a little something to add about a notion that Mod only quickly touches on, the experience of holding a book vs. an e-reader and how that might influence our reading and our after-reading experience. I am actually really curious how having mostly all of our stories on one device will change how we approach our “personal libraries”. Right now, the books I keep in my home all have a second-layer of texture (the covers, the paper texture, the smell of the book, the marginalia right on the page as opposed to somewhere else on the device…all of which varies from book to book) on top of the story as I remember it after I’ve read it.

I’ve yet to separate that experience from the imagined landscape of whatever novel or story I’m reading. Added of course to where I put the book upon finishing it. This all matters to me because I do go back and reference the books I’ve read, either in discussions, in reviews, while I’m reading something else. When I begin that mental process of reflecting on a book, I do imagine its form and location, however briefly, before I move further into a consideration of the story.

I’ve now read several works on my Kindle (The Maid by Yasutaka Tsutsui, Nicholas Nickleby…) and the reading experience is fine, comfortable, smooth, but when I want to refer to any of these books, my mind actually visualizes my Kindle, which is a bit stale, and of course identical for each book, before moving on to the layer of the text. And when I think about Nicholas Nickleby, as a whole text, for example, it exists for me as a kind of semi-invisible block of data inside the limbo of my Kindle as well as a vibrant, emotional narrative landscape. It has a very different physicality compared to my other printed books and this will always be a part of my overall reading experience.

Perhaps this is because I have a photographic memory, that I’m a visual learner, so the method I use to absorb the story is an integral part of my experience with a particular text. But it’s an interesting question for me, because maybe, one day, if most of my library is housed on a small number of digital devices, the experience of revisiting favorite works, of mentally cataloguing my library will be vastly different than it is now. I don’t think it will be necessarily bad, but it will be quite different. Flatter, I suppose. Although Mod’s point is that the ipad will allow for new textures, so there is an additional question there. But I do wonder whether any digitally-created texture, displayed on a flat screen will be able to give me a three-dimensional mental texture other than the container that displays the content?


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Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

8 thoughts on “digital media and our mental libraries”

  1. The evangelical tone of Mod’s article rubbed me up the wrong way. An ereader is an alternative way to present reading matter that may or may not take off – it’s not the second coming. Also, I note that he enthuses about new and exciting writing coming out of the ereader because of fewer barriers to publishing. And yet he then talks about how House of Leaves can’t be put on the e-reader because it is Definite Content and too dependent on a special typographical form. So, that’s not such good news for the experimentalists.

    And I do like your point, verbivore, that what we retain of a book is affected by the physical object. I am sure that my memories of books would merge without the cover and the feel of it and my marginalia all adding to the book’s specificity. Apart from anything else, covers ARE toothsome and desirable. I can’t feel the same longing for a lump of plastic and metal (which also has to be flown around the world, and is non-biodegradable, unlike trees) . If we transferred magazines and newspapers onto ereaders we’d do an awful lot more for the environment.

    Oh, I cannot be convinced about these devices yet. They just don’t appeal to me so far.

    1. Litlove – I agree that Mod is a bit to enthusiastic about the ‘revolutionary’ aspect of the ipad. If you think about it, it’s a bit like putting books on TV. Will that really enhance our reading experience? Even with new ways to interact with the text…it’s still the text that creates the magic of a book.

  2. I’ll go read the posts you reference in a minute, but I just had to repsond to your first. I agree with you about what it’s like reading on a Kindle. When I read a book and want to refer back to something I didn’t mark, I can remember pretty well where it was in the book by how far I was and where on the page the passage appeared and whether it was a left or right facing page. Can’t do that with the Kindle. It is flat like you said. While something like the Kindle might stay flat, not all books will be. Check out this article on augmented reality books.

    1. Stefanie – thank you for the article, I’ll have a look right now. It’s interesting that your experience with reading on a Kindle is similar to mine. I can’t help thinking that there is something to the act of opening a book…it feels like entering a text, in a way that clicking a button doesnt’t.

  3. Although I’m not a fan of Roland Barthes, his idea is indeed prophetic as he declared the death of the author and argued that the final destination, the ultimate interpretation and meaning of texts are to be met in the reader. His idea gains a new validation today as we ponder upon the rivalries between eBooks and real books.

    Barthes is right not only in the sense that the end user interacts with the text conceptually, but as you have so aptly pointed out, physically as well. You have articulated what physicality entails. I agree that such interactions are highly personal, such as the embracing of the objet d’art, paper, cover, spine and all; the marginalia, which could include our own writing and artwork; the touch and smell, which depend on how we have handled it while reading; and as you’ve said, the form and location of where it is placed afterwards. Thus every book can be rendered an object of ‘definite content’, for it’s not merely the textual idea that the reader interacts with, but the very physical object itself.

    Further, the narrative landscape is constructed not just with the content but in the context of the whole series of interactions between the reader and the object. In this way, every reader creates a very personal encounter that’s not merely textual but physical. Every book therefore could carry a meaningful ‘definite content.’ Yes, this applies even to ‘airport paperbacks’ as Mod has put it. His classification of splitting all books into ‘formless’ or ‘definite’ content may be a bit too prejudicial and reductionist. After all, determining whether a book is ‘formless’ or ‘definite’ could well fall within the private domain of the individual reader.

    1. Arti – thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I agree with you that deciding whether a book is ‘definite’ or otherwise is just not as simple as Mod would like to suggest. There is far too much going on between individual readers and the books they choose for this to ever be subject to some hard and fast rule. I like Mod’s attempt to brainstorm about how devices like the ipad might change our future reading landscape, but I think he is too quick to call something like the ipad a revolution.

  4. I’m with Stefanie on this one — I can find passages often because I remember how far into the book it was and on what part of the page. I would miss that with an e-reader, I think. I would certainly miss the tactile quality of books. I’m now curious to analyze my way of thinking about books more to see if that tactile quality plays a part in how I remember and respond to books.

    1. I do definitely miss it when I read things on my Kindle. I don’t think there is any way an e-reader will ever replace my library. And I don’t think I’m just being averse to change, but no one has managed to really improve on the book (as a physical object) in a heck of a long time. I’ll be really suprised if it happens in my lifetime.

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