Sunday, June 12, 2011

Marginaphilia and ebooks

Simon Reynolds is my favourite writer on musical history. His Blissed Out helped me make theoretical sense of late 80s and early 90s pop, hip hop and rock. Rip it Up and Start Again, a history of the post-punk movement, places Talking Heads next to Wire, The Fall side by side with Joy Division, providing a map of those social, political and aesthetic threads that made this movement so tantalizing, as well as introducing new music to seek out. So, when news came that Reynolds has a new book, Retromania, I went to Amazon to see if it was available in Kindle form. Yes, it was.

A few months ago I would’ve bought a cheap Kindle version, immediately downloaded it to my Apple iPod touch or MacBook Pro laptop and read most of it. The surge in the $A has made Amazon books relatively cheap. And the velocity at which a book can be searched for, found, bought and downloaded to a reading device, produces a type of techno-rush that is addictive and sort of powerful. But within the last few months I’ve moved back to paper books. In fact, I’ve recently bought a number of Kindle ebooks via Amazon that I’ve read or even skimmed quickly once downloaded, which I’ve subsequently purchased in paper form. Did these ebooks become samplers or tasters; a cheaper, quicker, buzzier form that become the basis on which to decide to make the investment in the paper form? But ebooks are not tasters in the same way that a 45rpm vinyl single was a taster for a 33&1/3rpm lp. ebooks are not shorter in length than their non-digital versions.

Maybe it’s the devices I’m reading on that have left me hankering for the paper version—I read with a pencil in hand, underlining, making annotations. The Mac Kindle software does make these writing/reading techniques available but, ironically, it’s quicker and more habitual for me to read with a pencil than to stop, highlight a passage, and type in a note. Reading paper with a pencil is a way of beginning to take notes; those proto-notes that, for me at least, begin to raise questions, make connections, and highlight significant and difficult passages—a widely used and well-worn technique. Others do this via writing in a reading journal.

On the one hand these techniques for making meaning of what’s read by writing don’t necessarily require paper and pencils (or pens). Expert readers make mental notes and, as I’ve noted, ebooks can be annotated digitally. But marking the paper page is a form of writing-over and writing-back to the text that places the reader’s body, mediated by the lead pencil or ink pen, onto the page. This is not to say that highlighting a sentence in an e-book, then typing a comment, leaves no impression or mark, just that it is a disembodied, digital mark rather than an embodied, physical and analogue one.

I like to mark and score the text: to evaluate, re-organise, illustrate, scratch and change it. At present I know how to do this with paper books and pencils, so that is why I’ve increasingly returned to paper books when I want to make a bodily investment in reading them. But with the growth in touch-screen tablet computers there must already be applications that allow such personalized marginalia to be written onto ebooks. When that happens—if it hasn’t already—ebooks will have become capable of an embodied and annotative, reading practice.

In the meantime, I’ll be getting the paper version of Retromania.

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