Slow Reading and the End of Print

It seems you can do all sorts of things slowly. Why weren’t we told?

Actually, Slow Reading by John Miedema is a thoughtful consideration of the enduring place of print in our culture. You’d be forgiven for assuming print was dying out under the pervasive i-influence of e-everything. Indeed, the author quotes Jeff Bezos of Amazon as saying the book is ‘the last bastion of analogue’.

Actually what I find interesting about the times we’re in is the arrival of radical new forms of physical textuality which call into question the simple story of the death of print. Two examples that keep catching my eye are the espresso book machine and the youtube graffiti wall.

The Espresso book machine is basically a photocopier that can spit out well made paperback books while you wait. This is a hi-tech mix of the digital (the back catalogue of every digitised book on the planet instantly available) and the traditionally physical (the physical paperback book to take away and enjoy). But it’s important to remember that paperbacks themselves are relatively new technology, having only achieved mass appeal in the 1930s (and the first paperback book shops were introduced to the US in the 1950s).

Where the publicity for the Espresso Book Machine goes wrong, I think, is that it tremendously underestimates the revolution that it heralds. Supposedly the new technology will make small independent book shops more competitive with the larger chains and the larger chains more competitive with supermarkets. This is exactly wrong. What it means is that notionally, every shop can and will become a book shop. And the cost of the technology is only going to come down. What will make the difference is not the ability to stock books, since there’s no more stock, nor the ability to discount them, since overheads are now minimal. The difference will be in the ability to promote them. The rise and rise of the expert bookseller has just begun.

The graffiti wall is a very weird phenomenon. This is the ability of internet video to bring to life monumental artwork inscribed on physical surfaces using stop motion filming techniques. This form of art has been feasible for a long time – since the invention of photography – but only now, with ubiquitous digitization, has it taken off. What’s interesting about this is the sense that the digital somehow requires the monumentally and immovably physical wall for its rhetorical effect as spectacle to work. It shows, I think, that the end-of-the-book anxiety is just a sub-set of a larger end-of-the-physical anxiety. It also shows that the physical doesn’t end, it just gets transformed. We are living in a time of digital-physical hybridization and we should probably get used to the feeling of not being able to get used to it.

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