THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The experience of reading a book is such a personal thing; you hold it in your hand, you imagine the scenes in your mind, you engage with it with such intelligence that your emotions and senses are drawn into the entire story (if the author is good at their job). We know this fundamentally and can all relate, I think, to picking up a book and reading through it with the sole intention (or possibly “soul” intention) of interacting with it in a way that opens our minds and hearts as nothing else can. But why is this? What is the yearning that we all have had to read? Is it the words, the people we encounter because of them? A myriad of answers arise, but I think that it has everything to do with the physical book: it demands attention purely by being in your presence, asking you to experience it in more than one way. This article is meant to introduce the reasoning why the book as a physical object is an important interaction to have in order to read the book and read into it, and how this interaction informs the relationship formed between author and reader beyond what modern technology can do.
Of course the first thought most people have is “What about e-books? The book as a physical object is declining!” Well, based on a
study done in late 2017, more people still read from print books than any other format, and that number has not decreased since 2012. People still work at and love Barnes & Noble, still visit unique local used book stores, and generally keep the books that they love the most, or at least the ones they intend to read. To quote Stephen Fry, “books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”
So why do we think that the Kindle craze and the e-book will surpass the print book? Most likely it is because in every other space, our social lives, our school lives, our work lives, we revolve around the ability to search the internet and read what we want and can find. Amazon lets you self-publish e-books, Tumblr and Archive of Our Own allow people to publish content, usually chapter-esque “books” based off of fan-favorite TV shows and movies (which by the way is not a modern development). I mean in no way to diminish these born-digital works, since they are honestly some of the most interesting pieces of our culture’s popular literature, especially in a world that is saturated in the variety of entertainment media we produce. What I mean to show is the way that we interact with these types of literature is drastically different than the way we interact with the physical book, something that is tangible and impacts our reading moment just by being present: you’re able to gauge by sight and touch just how much farther you’ve got to go before your hero gets their happy ending, the cover art and illustration is carefully placed and designed to grab your attention and supplement your reading at the right points, and even just the size of the book will determine whether or not you end up looking like the smartie™ with worldly endeavors while on your commute. What the e-book allows us to do is carry our books with us wherever we go, which is amazing and important, but what it can’t allow is the feeling of reading that we all crave; actual, tangible feeling that keeps bookstores in business and your home shelves full. The Danes are all about it.
There is an actual theory attached to this kind of demand the physical book makes of us, written by philosopher Bill Brown, called “Thing Theory.” The essay he writes under this title addresses the material object and its presence in the physical world as well as the meanings of the word “thing” and the innumerable items it could identify. The main point of his argument is that the moment when something no longer serves its intended purpose, like when a window becomes too dirty to see through or a phone screen breaks so that you can’t read your grandmother’s autocorrected text (he didn’t use this as an example but I think we can all relate), it now has an agency and an ability to interrupt our lives and assert itself upon us. We can’t see through the window and we can’t read the text, therefore it has asserted itself as “object” and no longer “thing” because “thing” means that it would have to serve the purpose it was meant for. So the subject (you)- object (book) relationship that is then formed when you read a physical book informs the continuation of the relationship with other, similar, objects (other books, forms of media, etc), making the object always more “object” than “thing,” something that does more than serve its purpose, possibly surpassing it, by engaging us both with the story (its intent) and its design (its “object-ness”). The book is both an object for experience, a “thing” when it does not demand our direct attention and allows us to read, and an object, when it
obtrudes our reading-even for a moment-and makes us pay attention to its physical self.
Let’s expand this a bit: looking at the margins of a book you think, “okay, that makes sure that I can see everything clearly and they have a purpose, etc.” But once you start to write in them, the margins are no longer serving the purpose you thought they had. They are something other than a margin; they are a notepad, and the book shifts with that into the realm of object, because you are no longer using it for the intended use only (which was supposed to just be reading). You can dog-ear pages to come back to, interrupting the way that you usually read. You can underline parts that speak louder to you, making you slow down and look at just what you want to underline. Interruption is what makes the book an “object” and not a “thing”: it surpasses its original intent. So then keeping a broken paperback together with tape has a more personal meaning than an ebook would be when it just decides to no longer work; one is filled with sentiment, the other pure frustration. The experience of the book as a physical and obtrusive object shifts it from a vehicle for text to something whose physical attributes and characteristics are of interest and even value, bearing meaning to the presence and "objectness" of the book. The text might be Wilde, but the marginalia, taped edges, missing pages, dogeared corners are related but exceedingly different.
Brown also says that “obsolescence as an accusation, whenever it represses its own history, is utterly passe” (How Devil Wears Prada of you, Bill Brown, 13). Books persist because they have always done so, even when people thought that radio would destroy the book, or movies, or plays, or other story mediums of the past. It’s so out of style to say that books will peter out and never return, even now with more entertainment media than we could ever imagine out there in the world, because we don’t just read books; we use them. They are research, decoration, representations of our families, our own lives, our food, our histories. The fact that one object can contain so much meaning is not new, but that the intent of the object was not such to begin with is what reminds us that the book is more than “thing.”
So if the book has always persisted (and of course always will), how is it that people actually read books? Does the “thingness” of the book really prove how well we read it? Well, the short answer is, no. Obviously not. The long answer is that readership theory, or reader-response criticism, and the evidence we are able to gather is ridiculously small because the best evidence comes from the physical book. If someone was very careful with the books they read, we’d never be able to know if they actually read it or not, or where, or how, or even when. With this, however, there are ways that we can figure out what the response to the book was might have been with publication history, edition timelines, diary entries, subscription library registers, bookseller records, book reviews, and plenty of other avenues, though the individual book is always better to use to understand the individual.
The basics of reader-response theory center around how the intended, and unintended, audiences react to the book they’re reading, and how the meaning of the words does not exist until the reader reacts and analyzes the work itself, quite opposite to what most scholarship does in focusing on the author and their intent. Scholars in this field then take these reactions and compare them against other reactions to the same book in order to figure out both personal and culturally conditioned (or inherited) ways of reading. The best evidence we have of readership in any capacity like this, that which comes directly from the experience of reading, is marginalia. Now most people don’t want to write in their books, or if they do they do it for school, but marginalia is actually a really important way of digesting your thoughts and what you enjoy about a book by using the book as a receptacle of your own words (but like, only if it’s your book. Don’t borrow my book and write in it, because rude).
You can use the book to respond to the book and not have to worry about losing your place or thinking too hard, because the margins are only so wide. On the internet there are of course comment sections that function in a similar way, but most of them do not limit the amount of space you have to write, and not always are you able to comment directly, or even want to, because it is public. The private space of the individual book is so much more useful as a form of response than anything else that we’ve developed so far (in my obviously too humble opinion). Even with the amount of digital content that we are able to read, not often do we feel the need to respond to it, especially if we feel overloaded by the sheer number we find out there.
If we’re the ones who make meaning when we read, well then what about the author? What about their intent, their work, and their experiences? Great anticipated questions, me! The author, when writing, has two people in mind: their intended audience, and themselves. Most authors are not going to feel comfortable putting out something into the world that they themselves don’t like. But after releasing it into the wild, does the author have any more ability to change or inform their text? Roland Barthes says no. He, (like a long time ago) wrote a paper called “The Death of the Author” that revolved around the idea that once the author published their book, it no longer had anything to do with them; scholarship shouldn’t focus on the author’s life or intent in studying the
work of literature, rather the work itself had to be studied thoroughly to understand it. The author no longer matters to the work and so is ostensibly “dead.” Oscar Wilde said something in this vein (imagine a Victorian high society voice) : “It is the spectator...that art really mirrors” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde, 17).
So if we take to heart what these scholars have surmised, we understand that the physical book best captures a reflection we are incapable of seeing in any other mirror, with our experience informing the text. However, I would argue that it has more to do with the connection we feel to the author’s craft as a human writing about experiencing life in whatever way they feel they can (science fiction, romance, comedy, crime, etc.) and ostensibly communicating with them. The fact that we are able to physically hold the story and react to it within that tangible affection (as I hope most people feel for books), the intention, and therefore the “thingness” of the book is warped. It can be reflected and shaped by us, the reader, and so the author, the audience, and the community that is then formed completely changes the experience that we have with the physical book. The book is the vessel for change, moments of engaged response, and contains both experience of author, artist, binder, and reader within its covers, which are transmittable only through the physical book.
Now I won’t say that I agree completely with the idea that the author is “dead” to the work that they’ve created, but they cannot control, once the book is out in the world, how it will be received and who will receive it. The internet lets authors be more direct; writing on certain sites may secure the audience you intend to write for, but I don’t read fan-fiction and yet have been on An Archive of Our Own and seen chapters of “books” that I’ve found engaging and interesting in plot and character usage, though I’m not
necessarily the intended audience of “fan.” The future of the author may allow for them to be more direct, but it also excludes the tangibility factor, and eliminates the potential for a reader-author-book relationship to continue past the computer screen.
The overall human experience that we get from the book is the experience with each other; the author who wrote it, the publisher who chose it, the bookseller who sold it, the reader who dove into it, and the world that talks about it. The physical book can engage us and piece the world together bit by bit because of the community that has been formed through words and connection to the others that we can see and fill our shelves with, and contain ourselves within by changing and shifting what the book means to us and to itself with marginalia, notes, re-bindings, taping, etc.
So go buy a book. Fall in love with it. Write in it. Pass it along. We could all use some good conversation.
All works used are listed in the bibliography or linked.