Column: Technology doesn’t inhibit cultural consumption
May. 03, 2011
The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.
I’m an English major, but aside from the curriculum and technical requirements of that, I obnoxiously fit the romantic characteristics that come with the territory.
I vicariously seek the oldest, most beat-up copies of books I could easily find in mint condition elsewhere. I swoon for books with pretty covers and beautifully typeset pages. The smell of bookstores and the books within -- their coffee- and-cigarette perfume, their old-wood musk -- harkens me back to times when I wasn’t alive, yet completely wish I were.
And in vigorous defense of this vintage and ever-declining aesthetic, I used to be no stranger to damning the Kindle and other e-readers. I used to cite apocalyptic jargon about the decline of literature and the decline of our ability to communicate. I cried foul at the potential consequences to independent bookstores, to the entire print industry.
Admittedly, this seems to be part of our tendency to sound alarms at the introduction of new technologies that might present an affront to our traditions and loves.
We have ample access to digital-format music with high bitrates, but some part of us longs for the scratches and fragments of old cassettes and 8-track players.
There’s something integral about those idiosyncrasies to the way we listen to the music; the clicks and rough transitions are as much a part of the songs as the lyrics.
Just as much, our longing for old aesthetics in rejection of new technology manifests in our obsession for Polaroid instant film and 35mm film. The blurry glow, the lack of clarity both lend to the character, the atmosphere of the images we create, in a way we feel digital imagery can’t reproduce.
But as much as I’m charmed by these old aesthetics, I’m growing tired of hearing moans and groans about the consequences of digital culture on the arts, particularly literature. Although I’m fully guilty of having lost a little hope when I saw Toni Morrison as the narrator for a Kindle commercial, looking back on it, I’m realizing I can still have what I want with e-readers.
What I want out of reading is the pure, uninhibited activity of consuming and experiencing the writing. Although other e-readers allow for this experience, I actually prefer how unlovable older versions of the Kindle are because of their lack of pyrotechnics. There’s nothing flashy or fancy about them. You’re forced just to read -- nothing else.
In fact, because of a glitch in the pagination of its content, Kindles don’t really allow you to know where you are in terms of page number, making the process of reading even more unhinged from anything concrete.
I’m beginning to realize, too, that not only are technological amenities potentially distracting to uninterrupted reading, but the physical nature of books might get in the way of this too. Cover designs, vintage smells and fancy paper all become tempting reasons to buy books, but not necessarily to read them.
Those who desire to return to the countryside of old literature often seem interested in a form of commodity fetishism that makes buying books the main form of consumption, rather than the actual reading.
I fetishize material goods as much as anyone else. But if people are going to pretend to be on the front lines of defending literature in the digital age, are they defending literature, or are they defending the old material version of literature?
If content is actually the most important part of literature, then any rejection of e-readers has to be in some denial of the fact that e-readers provide the same exact content as printed books.
Relieving, though, is the fact that books will still exist. If you want your yellowed paper, the nearly illegible, cursive notes from a previous owner and the old smell, you can have that. If you want every book in the Modern Library Classics collection, you can still collect them.
But don’t pretend technology is some sign of a dark future. Release yourself from the binding rationality that makes you want to fear technology. It’s going to be fine. You’re going to be fine and most importantly, art will be fine too.