Reading in Electronic Times: Andrew Piper’s “Book Was There” Was Here


People who write about the future of reading often like to disavow shallow binaries, like print versus digital, for example. Yet it is the searing awareness of that very binary, that paper books are very different from screens, that gets people into the predicament of writing books about the meaning and value of books in the first place. Awkward contortions often ensue. In his lovely and personal account of reading past and present, Book Was There, from 2012, Andrew Piper heroically battles with and at times succumbs to these quandaries. His secret, and perhaps victorious, antagonist in this struggle seems to be digital reading itself.

Piper claims he is trying to avoid “tired binaries.” The distinction between print and digital is not one of “versus,” he says, but of an “ecological” coexistence. In its attempt to talk about the future and the past, print and digital all at once, the book provides a useful starting point for thinking through how the history of reading inflects current habits. “To talk about reading,” Piper says, “is always implicitly to talk about the future and the past simultaneously.” He nevertheless tends to proceed by contrasting older and newer reading habits, a back-and-forth structure that seesaws again whenever the discussions of the new begin to feel old. Though his insights about the meaning of reading remain largely evergreen, in his accounts of contemporary digital habits, already the pages are yellowing: 2012 was a long time ago on the internet, and this book was written before artificial intelligence, bots, 3D printing, and virtual reality had taken the primary seats in digital culture that they, for now, enjoy.

Still, a book about the future of the book that is just starting to show its age may be a perfect symbol of this rapidly changing moment in reading, and in any case, Piper’s aim isn’t total coverage. In addressing a practice as variegated as reading, the best he could do is offer a set of provocations—and at that he brilliantly succeeds. Channeling Gaston Bachelard’s classic The Poetics of Space, Piper questions the relative openness and closure of printed texts and digital ones in the pursuit of what he calls the shape of reading. Time is on his mind, as well as space, as he explores the difference between how books and digital files encode duration. Books, he says, “convey a sense of time passing in a double sense—my having been there for some period of time and my no longer being there (‘I was there,’ a book says).” He suggests that, in contrast, the digital file “exists in a far more exacting web of measurability (when I read it, how long I read it, what I did with it).” This countability of digital texts is perhaps most visible in 2016 in the now-widespread practice—rare in 2012—of giving reading time estimates for articles via a code snippet that counts words, shaping digital files in the form of minutes.

To match the metaphorical flights of these themes, Piper writes in often poetic and sometimes elusive phrases that are a total pleasure to read. In a section on the cultural shift from trees of knowledge to fields, he argues that what makes  digital reading exhausting is exposure. “We need to remember the intermittent respite provided by the leaf,” he says, playing on the leaf as a unit in a tree of knowledge, as the provider of shade in a real tree, and as a stand-in for the turning page of a book. Though it has its treats, Piper’s  penchant for artistry does sometimes leave me baffled. “The algorithm is the rock that rescues us from the shipwreck of computation,” he writes. What? I love the look and sound of this line, and I think someone somewhere should tweet it, but I don’t really feel that it means anything. Still, these are beautiful images that are worth attaching to too-frequently sterile notions of “technology.” At other moments Piper is delightfully, refreshingly straightforward, as when, discussing gamification and texts, he says, simply, “Imagine if you could play In Search of Lost Time. It would be amazing.” Yup.

Piper is likewise deft in untangling the many threads of what sharing means to reading, for example, in the context of copyright, social media, and open source creativity. He notes how sharing promoted the growth of programing languages, thereby underwriting this new, computed era of literacy. He suggests that, in passing books down to his children, marked or unmarked by all the time he spent reading, he “will be sharing the limits of sharing.” By giving them the ability to read his books but not the thoughts they provoked in him, he will bestow on them realms into which they can and can’t follow him—a rather nice idea.

But then the lament begins. Digital reading lacks privacy (“Unlike social networking,” he writes, “in books no one is looking where you are looking”); with the advent of social sharing, “we have lost mechanisms through which we hand something over to another, through which readers make something their own” (italics original). It’s still not clear to me why ownership matters to reading. More to the point, with his interest in what digital reading has lost, Piper betrays his hand and veers towards binaries that privilege paper. We learn that reading print is to dream while reading digital texts is to sleepwalk, printed books are vertebrates while digital texts are invertebrates, “the touch of the page brings us into the world […] while the screen keeps us out.” In other words, digital texts (like the one you’re reading) are viruses that lock sleepwalkers out of the world, bespeaking a gothic zombie land of threat and risk. As these examples imply, there is a pall of horror shading everything digital in this book that purports to support the happy coexistence of paper and screens.

It’s this sentiment that I find most odd and interesting about Piper’s book, this sense of fear lurking at the margins, as though against his will. After all, he embraces digital culture. He didn’t mean to write a work of “bibliographic mourning,” but he admits that this melancholy is a hallmark of his genre of writing about reading. He suggests this trait appears because reading  itself is fundamentally melancholy “because it is so nonvital, sluggish, or even deadening,” but also because it can never be finished, and at the same time can’t go on forever. I think he is speaking here of his own habits of reading—likely long books, in nice quiet spells by himself, sluggishly, deadeningly? I can only imagine. This vision seems markedly unlike what are increasingly other people’s enlivening experiences of reading both online and off—or at least my own.

The real source of Piper’s melancholy seems in fact to be the threat digital reading poses to his notions of childhood. Piper admits that he is writing about and for his children, as an ode to what their memories of childhood reading might be. “I want my children to learn how to learn one thing after another,” he writes, “to accept that there is a before and an after in life. I think reading books is still one of the best ways we have of reminding us of this fact.” Piper here is not just concerned about childhood habits, but suggests that very fundamental systems of human thought are under attack by digital reading. This is a strange terror to be sparked by the mere prospect of using paper books less. While it’s true that new technologies can alter how people think, fear for basics like the before and after seems a little overblown. And anyway, our children’s childhoods and lives will always be different than our own. It’s scary, but ok.

Such fear of attacked childhood and nostalgia for lost youth drive arguments about reading more frequently than you might expect, perhaps because their authors often “grew up” as readers (in the papery past), and face the very Proustian discovery that the past seems most available in sensory recollections. These writers’ tender memories of reading are memories of the physical objects they read—and they love referencing Proust. The tangible elements of reading, like crisp or dog-eared pages, are indeed easiest to be nostalgic about, but more and more I think such hang-ups miss the point of reading. In our eagerness to account for the pleasures of reading, we become too interested in paper, too happy about ink and binding, and the armchairs and window nooks of yore. It’s not that paper books are not worth preserving, or that they aren’t more fun to read than digital texts—they are (for now). It’s that if you want to talk about reading, paper books and screens are spin off design issues. Reading is its own thing, elusive as the shift of an eye in the dark, or a word that slips away the moment it is grasped.

Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times, by Andrew Piper, University of Chicago Press, 2012