Over the summer months I have been reassessing my approach to reading. Books have been a major part of my life since my earliest childhood, some of them have become trusted friends, others have acted as rigorous sparring partners, while some books have actually managed to radically shift my thinking in important areas. I believe that reading is a great democratising exercise, opening up possibilities for learning, for cultural critique, and even movements for significant societal change, to people who otherwise would be disempowered and disenfranchised. Over the past 8 years I have gradually migrated away from hard copy texts to ebooks, finding a neophyte joy in the portability of books on Kindle and iPad, and the ability to mark up quotations for preaching and research.
Slowly, however, my mind has been changing in this regard. Some of this is simply fetishistic, a wistful nostalgia for the physicality of printed books, their variety of format, even the smell of new paper, or the dusty musk of second hand volumes. Away from such frippery, other issues have been working themselves out in my mind, a growing concern about what we might forfeit in sidestepping hard copy, and sidelining independent booksellers. I genuinely believe that there are some huge philosophical and political issues at stake if our culture migrates from the shelf to the cloud, the text to the eBook, and it is these that I want to think out loud about in this post.
Thinking within the algorithm
My generation has witnessed massive changes in the realm of technology, and its gradual ingress in our wider world. Computers have moved from being a luxury item, to a household tool, to a constant companion in our pockets; we have moved from consulting our devices when needed to answering their constant call on our attention; we have publicised our private worlds so that the boundary between what ought to be shared and what ought to be kept close is constantly being transgressed. Part and parcel of this revolution has been the way in which we shop for items, and the way in which we manage our desires in that regard.
Online shopping has made us both a strict master and an obedient slave. We can now order what we want and have it almost instantly, we can peruse stock lines and options that no physical town, let alone individual shop, could reasonably contain. We can shop night and day, and we can readily return what doesn’t suit us, swapping out one item for another with incredible ease. In the world of books and reading this has seemed like a great boon and blessing. What possible drawback could there be to such freedoms when it comes to the selection and enjoyment of texts? Surely this format opens up ever widening horizons for us to enjoy.
Bob Dylan hit an enigmatic and important note in Ballad in Plain D when he wrote
Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me
“How good, how good, does it feel to be free?”
And I answer them most mysteriously,
“Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”
The freedom which online book purchasing gives us increases our reach, but reduces our ‘skyway’, it places more immediate options before us, while withholding other divergent options at the same time. If I know the correct terms to search for, I can unlock all kinds of titles on Amazon and similar platforms, but more often than not I approach these stores with preconceived ideas about what I want, or following a link or lead from someone else. A certain amount of this limited skyway is governed by economics, and the offer of significantly reduced titles means that I am buying to the zeitgeist, or sub-zeitgeist, while believing that I am exercising freedom.
The contrast between this and the experience of being in an independent bookstore is stark. In this environment I am of course limited by the skyway of the owner’s stock, or their generic preferences, or their philosophical concerns etc, but there are depths and edges in a bookshop that online retailers cannot replicate. Local or emergent authors can wangle their books on to the shelves, the tastes of a much smaller client base will be more quickly determinative of what is available, and my own preoccupations stand to be more powerfully challenged than if I am nipping into my algorithmic silo to buy further confirmation bias.
This matters, not just for me as an individual consumer, but for our mind as a culture. There are huge temptations in our current context to polarise our thinking, assigning our minds with unquestioning loyalty to our own tribe, while firing salvos at all and any who differ from us. Online marketing has no philosophical beef with this, and will rather exploit it to keep me purchasing, even if my mind isn’t stretched. An independent bookseller worth their salt will confront me with ideas and perspectives which can stand down my prejudices, or at least make them more credible, and the ability to sample texts from opposing positions can only really be enjoyed by that long lingering stand by the stacks. I am already being conditioned enough by marketing and by my own social group, without submitting what I should and shouldn’t read, what I can and cannot see to the vagaries of ‘Recommended’ lists and governed searches.
Neutering textual subversion
This second concern is really my most deeply felt, and perhaps my more easily misunderstood position. As a postgraduate student in medieval studies one of the areas which intrigued me the most was the capacity of texts to subvert dominant power structures, and intellectual feudalism. Where the ‘authorities’ demanded conformity, where councils made decrees, texts could undress the emperor, could demean a despot, and could critique a system surreptitiously. This work was partly achieved by the genius of artifice and fantasy, but also via the physical danger that a book presents, its ability to be concealed, transmitted, imbibed, and applied. The hazardousness of the vernacular to Church and King when on the printed page, the use of comedy, tragedy, and even religious tropes to undermine the intellectually and spiritually incredible was a powerful part of how a book might function.
This function has been realised throughout modern history as well. One need only think of Tyndale’s New Testaments, hidden like incendiary devices in stocks brought across the English Channel, or the sheer power of a Solzhenitsyn or Grossman to honeycomb the foundations of the seemingly impervious edifice of Communism. Books, handwritten manuscripts, paperbacks and hardbacks have been hidden in homes, smuggled across borders, filled with ideas that crackled like forbidden fireworks against the black skies of tyranny and oppression. Books are vehicles for ideas that can easily navigate off-road territory, can hide in caves until the danger has passed, and can sow tiny seeds whose roots might upend an empire
Ebooks neuter this textual subversion almost entirely. Readers no longer own their texts but borrow them from big corporations, they reveal not only what they are reading, but what particular statements, sentiments, or arguments are meaningful to them. We have uploaded the conscious element of reading to the cloud, and we could stand in danger of destroying one of the vital things which books have managed to achieve since before the advent of the printing press. Our society is hungry for power, titans lock horns and seek the minds of multitudes, and the subject of tyranny plays at the edges of the many existential concerns we harbour about our world. If we imagine the all too imaginable, that a dictator could take control of Western culture, then in jettisoning physical books we may have filled up many of the wells of good thinking, we may have demolished the radio masts which would allow us to stand and speak against such things.
I am aware that much of what I share here could sound like conspiracy theory, but I believe these issues are either real, or have the potential to become so. I am not forever abandoning ebooks – Bible commentaries on the Kindle are invaluable to me for travel, for instance – but I am thinking seriously about what it will mean if the only outlet for intellectual food is the canteen of corporate enterprise with its keen calorie count of how I am consuming, and its drably monotonous menu.
I am going to back to the book, with all of its latent power, with all of its political energy, with all of its ability to upend my thinking, and to knock down temples, thrones, and kingdoms.