On the Reading of Books

Much of my time writing on this blog is spent advocating for the open web, and the potential it brings for distributed, global, collaboration.  I don't believe in this any less, despite the critique that follows.

At the same time that I am passionately involved in the creation of the open web, I am also intimately tied to book culture.  Unlike some of my fellow open web advocates, I am not against the book as a result of being for the web.  While I'm usually not one to make predictions, I feel confident in saying that the book is not going to disappear.  There are many reasons for this, but let me pick-up on one for now.

Reading on the web is mainly interested in information, in results, data, etc.  It is about  manifest- much more than latent content.  It is driven by the immediate reaction, by Liking, by linking, by query results.  Reading on the web is influenced by time: the time it takes to find it among so many other results, the time it takes to load, the time it takes to read, the likelihood that this text will be here tomorrow.

Reading on the web is also very often (always?) a first reading.  "Have you seen this?"  "Yes, I saw it."  It is what I read, not what I am reading.

The reading of book reading is different from the reading of the web.  This reading is much slower.  It takes time.  It participates in history.  Recently my wife and I went to a nearby inn for two days, in order rest and spend time together.  We each took along books to read, and when she saw me reading my book she asked, "I thought you were finished that?"  She was right, I've read that book many times, and will likely read it many more.

The reading of book reading is rereading.  The book provides a place of return in a way that isn't impossible on the web, but in practice never happens.  What does the replacement of progression with return do?  I believe that one of the most important things it does is to open a place for thinking.

The reading of rereading is how we get on the path to thinking.  The way to thinking is a path that is easily lost.  Tracking such a path, one is forced to return to the last known sign and walk in a slow circle around it, fanning out ever so slowly, until it can be picked up yet again.  Without return there can be no progress.  Without going back there is no going forward.  Books can provide such signs, and allow us to once again stumble on the path toward thinking.  This is important, since the path to thinking is so long.  One needs reliable signs from the past, places of return, places which are left alone rather than being trampled by progress.

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