Friday, June 6

you can't dog-ear digital pages

just so you know, I am blogging about my summer academic reading over here. my post this week puts a ridiculous music video in conversation with a rather fat historical text from the eighties: Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer.

I say fat because I have experience with the weights and thicknesses of other 450-page books, and fat is an applicable word for them, but I actually read this one in pdf form on a kindle. reading practically weightless digital text isn't very new to me, of course, but the neat little kindle itself is. it has its perks, but some of them are double-edged. the kindle I have isn't only for reading. you can put apps on it. watch videos. skim comics and blogs and any other website. (now part of me wants to say all those activities are their own forms of reading, so how does that change my point? hrmm.) anyway, a little while ago I read a snippet from this Dan Hon fellow on books vs. other media and the self-containment of the former vs. the dependence of the latter. he says,
"in my geeky head, books are their own runtime environment. The bound paper is the interface method. They are self-executing. They have direct-manipulation user interfaces that have been standardised now and are pretty intuitive. [...] You can’t just go to a library and get out a DVD and experience the content on it without also owning or having access to an additional access/interface layer. You can do that with a book."
of course, and he also admits this, you do have to know how to read. it is only because literacy and print publishing have become so standard and efficient and well-oiled that these book technologies work so almost-flawlessly. I could keep thinking out loud here about the infrastructures of all that, but really my reason for bringing in Hon's ramblings here is to say that the one-thing-at-a-time awesomeness of a book contrasts pretty obviously with the complexity and multifaceted shininess of my new kindle. I can take the thing out into the woods and disable its wifi, but even then the kindle won't be one single, self-contained book for me. it has dozens of pdfs on it now, and a feedly RSS app, and a slowly growing collection of half-finished ebooks. all that potential reading material in one slim seven-by-five-inch gadget is spectacularly, dazzlingly, befuddlingly cool and overwhelming.

before I started reading that fat-yet-weightless tome about science and history and such, I began my for-fun summer reading with What's Wrong With Plastic Trees? Artifice and Authenticity in Design by Martin H. Krieger. I found this book using my most favourite book-finding method: wandering library stacks until a title or spine calls out for attention. maybe it was the allusion (intended or not) to that Radiohead song. maybe it was that lovely question mark, or the nice deep green of the cover. once I opened it for a taste-test, the alliterative contradiction of the subtitle latched itself onto my curiosity and I took the thing home.

mostly it got read while I galavanted around Utah last month, sleeping in tents and on various sofas, and gradually beginning to look at all things--even the random spinach plants out by the shed and even the sage brush along the side of the road--as at least partially designed.

I began dog-earing at page 42. luckily, the copy of What's Wrong With Plastic Trees? that I read was a paper-and-ink book, with pages I could gently dog-ear without damaging its inner workings at all.
"Canonical descriptions of the world make sense only in terms of the concrete cases to which they are to apply and the hard cases that resist them. That is why we learn from examples and exemplars rather than from generic principles." 42
some of these bits, now that I look at them, speak to the themes from Leviathan and the Air-Pump, maybe. an experiment can be a way of managing a certain concrete situation of possible learning/knowing. how we shape that case will then shape our perspective, and vice versa... around and around.

this next one fits too:
"When we disagree about values, that disagreement has little to do with arbitrary subjectivity. We disagree because we have different conceptions of a good world, different conceptions of how we might achieve that world, different conceptions of what matters and how much. yet those differences are not simply to be noted; that we disagree sets up the necessity for argument. That we can have such arguments, or that we feel insulted by the claims of others, is a sign of community, and so we speak of a community of architects or scientists or programmers. It is consistent to believe that we share notions of quality and that we disagree in our conceptions of a good world." 58
but Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes disagreed about this, too--about knowledge communities and what their boundaries should be. hmmm.

there is a whole section on Niagara Falls that I think I might have my students read in the fall. Niagara is a grand, imposing, natural phenomenon... or is it? do we consider it (or any other "natural" thing) more as a place, as an event, or as a spectacle? can we experience it in more than one mode? how?

later on there were exciting references to technology, originality, and value. my copyright-obsessed academic self will want to keep coming back to this stuff.
"Reproducibility affects rarity. Technologies, which may involve physical processes or social organization, determine how reproducible an object is, for we may be able to make a copy of the original, or we may transfer to another object the significance attached to the original, or we may create virtual environments that are reproductions that acknowledge their lack of identity. Copying natural environments may be easier than copying artistic objects, because the qualities of replicas and forgeries are not as well characterized in the case of the natural environment. And rarity and reproducibility may be a matter of death and the end of production, whether of a photographer or a place." 69
composed reality... perhaps another idea to bring up for my students:
"If reality is a representation or at least a presentation of the world to ourselves, composition is what makes reality satisfying. We show the world to ourselves, and we might say, is is composed, much as God in Genesis saw, it was good." 105
the shifting, relative values of things that are persons and things that are not persons:
"Almost everything has been objectified as a purchasable or at least valuable commodity, human beings included, in slavery, in death, in injury. In modern economies persons are treated in terms of their purchasable capacities, as labor, and their capacities for consumption, as consumers. Things that are not persons may surely be exchanged for each other. Their relative prices are determined in an economy of supply, demand, and to some extent taboo, which restricts the places where they may be exchanged." 114
taboo and convention and tradition... all these factors that influence what we see as possible, or right, or good. will we ever overcome all those limitations?
"When we manage nature we are not forging or destroying a masterpiece untouched since it was originally fabricated. Untouched nature usually means untouched by white men, just as a pristine masterpiece is what has remained untouched for several generations--but has almost surely been deliberately tampered with or preserved at some time in its history." 121
nothing escapes human meddling, I guess. and if anything did, how would we know about it? we wouldn't. as soon as we noticed, we'd have already meddled.

I don't have a list of quotes from the pages of Leviathan and the Air-Pump. there were so many times I wanted to make notes in the margins or tuck bookmarks between certain sections. even though I can keep that pdf forever, it's much more difficult to go back and reference my reading experience of that book. the Krieger had to go back to the library, but my experience with it even still feels so more easily accessible, simply because I could dog-ear the pages.


Janeheiress said...

Your title. Absolutely. I will never switch to e-books before I have to, because of this. I just re-read one of my favorite books a couple of weeks ago, and probably dog-eared about fifty pages!

amelia chesley said...

mm, yes. but then, ebooks do give me a way of owning books without having to make much space for them. I remain pretty dedicated to libraries and real books though.