Bookmark: The Art of Reading in a “Post-Text Future”

Did you read on New York Times Interactive how text is succumbing to the sound and blurry of podcasts, YouTube, talking assistants, Netflix, face-reading phones, Instagram and augmented reality? We are passing through an internet portal turning our evolution from orality to literacy in on itself — where “text recedes to the background, and sounds and images become the universal language”.

Welcome to the post-text future.

The seemingly unintentional irony of delivering the welcome by text rather than by podcast or tweeted looping video meme undermines the hyperventilation a bit. But we should not roll our eyes and move on. The NYTI journalists are reminding us to pay attention.

Our literacy has always been multimodal (read and hear the orality in the opening text of Genesis in the The Douay Version). With each new medium it rapidly becomes more multimodal.  In Ringing the Changes on “The End of Books”, there’s the tongue-in-cheek evidence from 1894.

“The End of Books”, Scribner’s Magazine (August 1894)
Louis Octave Uzanne

In Literacies, Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, trace its occurrence back to the mid-twentieth century age of radio and television.  And not that long ago (2012), Amazon released Immersion Reading, enabling audio in sync with ebook reading.Leaving aside the apocalyptic speculation on the fate of letters, we should take the point: our literacies are entangled and evolve together. Putting the more scholarly view of differences between orality and text alongside the post-text Futurists’ observations about tweets, memes and other social media, we can see why we would benefit from closer attention to that entanglement and evolution.

Here is Walter J. Ong:

Oral folk prefer, especially in formal discourse, not the soldier, but the brave soldier; not the princess, but the beautiful princess; not the oak, but the sturdy oak. Oral expression thus carries a load of epithets and other formulary baggage which high literacy rejects as cumbersome and tiresomely redundant because of its aggregative weight … (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982, pp.31, 37-49).

Here is the post-text future:

An information system dominated by pictures and sounds prizes emotion over rationality. It’s a world where slogans and memes have more sticking power than arguments. — Farhad Manjoo

Here is Ong:

Writing fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings struggle with one another. It separates the knower from the known. By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle.

Here is the post-text future:

Doyle Canning, who wrote a book on using memes for political movements and co-founded the Center for Story-Based Strategy, said people have now realized memes are replacing nuanced political debate.

“People in 2016 declined to take seriously the impact of the memes and clung to this narrative that rational policy discourse would triumph, … And it didn’t.”

“Now politics,” she said, is just “a battle of the memes.” Nellie Bowles

These comparisons/contrasts underscore Kalantzis’ and Cope’s educational earnestness about the importance of teaching to these entangled and evolving literacies as perhaps the only systematic means we have of offering children social equity and a chance at social equality. Imbuing their literacies with critical thinking skills is paramount. The art of living depends on the art of reading.

At the Museum Meermanno in The Hague, you can step into this increasingly busy intersection of literacies at an exhibition called The Art of Reading.  The exhibition is divided into six rooms labeled “Reading is Turning the Page”, “Reading is Seeing”, Reading is Touching”, “Reading is Remembering”, “Reading is Concentrating” and “Reading is Reacting”. Unusually the art is not simply on display. Touching is allowed. Paul van Capelleveen, one of the curators organizing the show, insisted that each work be touchable. As a curator at the Dutch national library and advisor to the Museum Meermanno (The House of the Book), he felt strongly that the challenges of multimodal literacy cannot be understood “under glass”.

2nd Hand Reading (2014)
William Kentridge

Physicality or the haptic is an affordance that print literacy lords over digital literacy. We know where we are in a print book because we can feel as well as see where we are. Welcome then to the first room “Reading is Turning the Page”, where William Kentridge turns the tables on that claim. As you watch the “film of the book” across the room, you can try your hand at flipping the pages of the physical copy like a flipbook to mimic the video. Look closely though. The page numbers are not sequential.

2nd Hand Reading (2014)
Page 2388 then 2390?

And the entries are not in alphabetical order.

2nd Hand Reading (2014)
“Inquest” before “Heterogenesis”?

When the order of text, numerals, narrative and images collide, we are left with the literacy of art — be it digital or physical. Which brings you to the next room: “Reading is Touching”.

The Lost Men Project (2006)
Paul Emmanuel
The Lost Men Project (2006)
Paul Emmanuel

The names of South African soldiers, both black and white, killed in the First World War, are set in hot metal type then impressed without ink on flesh. Photographed and filmed, the names fade away. In the exhibition, a voice from the touchscreen device repeats, “Touch me, touch me”. Each touch upon the screen — on the skin before you —  advances the work running as a video on the touchscreen. Touching is the only way to read all of the names of the dead as they fade away. This work is but one of several that make up The Lost Men Project

Like a Pearl in My Hand (2017)
Carina Hesper

In this room of touch, you move from sorrow to sorrow. Glass and ink do not separate you from them very much.

Two pages from Like a Pearl in My Hand

To read the pages of Like a Pearl in My Hand, you must rest your hands on them then lift your hands away.

The face revealed on each page is the face of a blind or visually impaired child in a Chinese orphanage. As you read the page, the face fades into blackness.

The artist’s book is associated with Bethel China, a charity for the visually impaired. Click on the image above to visit the charity’s site.

The next room is “Reading is Seeing”.

Were the curators being tone deaf with this juxtaposition?  No, it is the bluntness and earnestness of recognition that literacies and our sensibilities are jumbled up.  The literacy of art does that. It can move us from somberness to whimsy and back. The first work in this room of sight is a children’s flashlight (or torch) book; the next, a device for the visually impaired; the next, an augmented reality app on iPads.

Hide & Eek! (2013)
Rebecca Sutherland

OrCam MyEye 2.0 (2017)
Amnon Shashua and Ziv Aviram
An artificial vision device with a lightweight smart camera that instantly reads text aloud –in this case, a poem by Gerrit Achterberg (Kinderangst or Childhood Fear).

The curators deftly paced the impact of these rooms. Something from the one before lingers with you in the next, or something in the next reminds you of the one before.

“Reading is Remembering” is the next room. Here the artists play with re-membering text vs dis-membering text, recalling vs forgetting, excavating vs filling in, deconstructing to reconstruct, destroying to create.

A Excavation, A Reading (2013)
Rick Myers

Rick Myers was commissioned by the Onassis Cultural Center to commemorate the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. The work he proposed required permission to obtain Pentelic marble fragments (quarrying is restricted for the purpose of restoring the Acropolis) and grinding them into dust. He then sourced four different translations of Cavafy’s poem “Before the Statue of Endymion”, arranged a reading and recording of each, and, for each, cut a stencil. The chronologically first translation’s stencil was positioned on stretched plastic film suspended over speakers.  The marble dust was sifted onto the black plastic through the stencil, leaving the legible white text on the black background with which the video starts after the credits above. As the recording of the chronologically second translation plays, the sound’s vibration obliterates the  marble dust words of the first translation. Then comes the turn of the second stenciled translation to be obliterated by the third’s recorded reading. And so on.

An instant from “An Excavation, A Reading” (2013)
Rick Myers

Here, then, is a work of art that simultaneously endorses and refutes the premise that text recedes in favor of some new universal language of sound and image. It is a textual palimpsest in motion where sound dissipates the text of the past, making way for the next version of the text to be dissipated by the sound of the third and the text of the third to be dissipated by the sound of the fourth. A moment of the work is captured in Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe’s The New Concrete (see below). The work runs a little over three minutes, excerpts can be found here, but the experience under the exhibition room’s banner provides an unsurpassable frame for the work.

An Excavation, A Reading (2013)
Rick Myers
From The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century, Edited by Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe. London: Hayward Publishing, 2015

Inspired by The Royal Road Test by Ed Ruscha, Mason Williams and Patrick Blackwell (the crew that filmed a Royal typewriter being thrown out of a Buick travelling at 90mph), Simon Morris had seventy-eight students cut out all of the words from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.  On Sunday, June 1st, 2003, he “threw the words out of the window of a Renault Clio Sport on Redbridge Road, Crossways, Dorset, traveling at a speed of 90mph, approximately 122 miles southwest of Freud’s psychoanalytical couch in London. The action freed the words from the structural unity of Freud’s text as it subjected them to an ‘aleatory moment’ – a seemingly random act of utter madness.” The work on display consists of a Ruscha-like book (right down to the plastic spiral binding) and a film of the epic literary littering.

The Royal Road to the Unconscious (2003)
Simon Morris

If you are expecting the next room — “Reading is Concentrating” — to help you gather any scattered thoughts or words, think again.

Marinus van Dijke’s work draws your eye and ear first. Chickens clucking and strutting onscreen, superimposed small white circles the size of a chicken’s eye jerking and gliding across the screen, a sheet of paper being laid over the screen (ah, it’s a screen within a screen), and then a hand with pen enters the frame, picks a circle and, trying to track it, leaves a scrawl on the paper.

Eye (2013)
Marinus van Dijke
Eye (2013)
Marinus van Dijke

Van Dijke’s work echoes Jan Dibbets’ Robin Redbreast’s Territory: Sculpture 1969, April — June, which Germano Celant included in his Book as Artwork show in 1973. Like the deliberate echo of Morris/Ruscha, this chance echo of Van Dijke/Dibbets recalls the grounding of  contemporary textual and book art in the conceptualism of the 1960s/70s.

Robin Redbreast’s Territory: Sculpture 1969, April — June (1970)
Jan Dibbets

Dibbets documented the flight patterns of this highly territorial bird and presented that in a book as a conceptualization of an “as if” sculpture drawn in space.

Robin Redbreast’s Territory: Sculpture 1969, April — June (1970)
Jan Dibbets

There was admittedly some “artistic license” in Dibbets’ documentation — somewhat the same as when Van Dijke’s tracing pen cannot keep up with the peripatetic circles, which are projections of the chickens’ eye movements as they hunt for food.

“Reading is Reacting” is the last room. Here it seems that printed text comes out on top. Over in one corner is a Dutch encyclopedia, stacked vertically four feet high.

In the opposite corner, on shelves from floor to ceiling, is the Dutch version of Michael Mandiberg’s Print Wikipedia. The paperbacks scattered on the display table began their textual lives online. 

Print Wikipedia (Dutch edition, 2016)
Michael Mandiberg
Jack
Tweetbundel (2015)
Jan Dirk van der Burg
Unsolicited autobiography created from the subject’s Twitter feed.

Although printed text seems to be having the last word, attend to the curators’ last words on your way out:

Reading and writing have become increasingly open arenas: there are more readers than ever before, there are more books and publication outlets, which can reach vast readerships thanks to the internet. Readers feel more empowered and are able to combine or alter texts found online. Readers become writers. Online texts have therefore come to resemble oral literature, in that they are constantly changing and being passed on from one person to another, retold — sometimes differently. They are unstable and at the same time highly accessible.

Text in books appear to be fixed, but annotations and deletions change the printed text, just as editorial changes alter a page on the internet…. Even so, printed texts are in principle less changeable than those posted online. This makes them appear inviolable and irrefutable. Some people fear that young people believe everything they read on the internet. That is nothing new. Philosophers from Socrates to Locke thought that written or printed texts would be accepted as the absolute truth.

Where do we stand today? … How reading will develop in the future is unclear, but one thing is sure: connection and interaction will be key to that development.

Leaving The Art of Reading and thinking again about a post-text future, you can be sure of one other thing: the art of living will still depend on the art of reading.

Bookmarking Book Art – “Previously on …”

W is for %22window%22
W is for “window”.
© Myriapod Productions, 2013

“Previously on …”  Say the phrase and most listeners’ brains switch to a favorite channel and television series. It is part of our vernacular. It instantly evokes a compound state of remembering and anticipating.

Myriapod Productions embodies that state of mind in its animated alphabet-book film series Mysteries of Vernacular. Each book for each letter is an old yellowed or gray hardback whose pages turn by themselves to reveal silhouette figures that glide across the pages, accordioned illustrations from other works or carvings reminiscent of the book sculptures of Doug Beube, Brian Dettmer and Odires Mlászho – with each vernacular word and definition emerging from an old library card pocket or from beneath a flap or cutout on the page.  

The treatment of the letter W is particularly apropos to this compound artwork.  W is for “window”, which we are informed by Graham James (the narrator) is an example of the Old Norse technique of word invention called kenning. Kenning is the joining of two things (or rather two words for two different things) to designate a third thing: such as whale + road = whale-road = sea. Window is originally an Old Norse kenning word: windauga = vind (wind) + auga (eye). The book in the animation is Mikhail Sholokhov‘s The Don Flows Home to the Sea, a Nobel-prize-winning window on the life of the Don Cossacks during the Russian Revolution.

The book for the letter A (for “assassin”) is Karl Menninger‘s Love against Hate, whose theme of love’s shaping our instinctual aggressiveness suggests an ironic bent and wry, punning sense of humor in Jessica Oreck and her Myriapod team. The letter C for “clue” traces back to the ball of yarn (clew) that Ariadne gave Theseus to help him find his way out of the maze after killing the Minotaur, which is explained with an animation of George Bernard Shaw‘s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. C is also for “clever”.

D for “dynamite” plays out on the pages of A Number of Things, a satiric novel of Irish and British manners by Honor (Lilbush Wingfield) Tracy. Tracy became the fuse to a stick of dynamite planted by Bevis Hillier in his rival A.N. Wilson‘s biography of Sir John Betjeman. Hillier concocted a letter from Betjeman purporting to reveal an affair between Tracy and the Oxford don. Not only was the letter a hoax, but Hillier embedded an acrostic that spelled out “A N Wilson is a shit”.

Of course, X for “x-ray” is illuminated with George IlesLittle Masterpieces of Science, and naturally, Z for “zero” is accounted for with Teach Yourself Calculus. But this soupçon of humor runs out with H (what has “hearse” to do with Bernard Jaffe‘s story of chemistry?) and G (what has “gorgeous” to do with James Russell Lowell?) and F (what has “fizzle” to do with Mark Twain‘s Life on the Mississippialthough one can imagine his delight with the word’s eytmological kinship with flatulence?).

F is for %22fizzle%22
F is for “fizzle”.
© Myriapod Productions, 2013

Each letter, definition, chapter, volume, episode (?) of Mysteries of Vernacular elicits affection for, if not outright love of, words and language. Perhaps that is not just down to Oreck’s and team’s skill, humor and cleverness. After all, for most of us, the alphabet-book is our childhood entrée not only to letters and words but any aspect of the internal and external world we fancy. Just for ages 3-5, our bookstores and libraries have the ABCs of Asthma, Bible Verse, Colors, Dinosaurs, Engineering, Feelings, Golf, Halloween, Ice Cream, Jobs, Kangaroos, Love, Math Riddles, Nature, Origami, Pigs, Questions, Rocks, Sounds, Touch, Under the Sea, Vanishing (endangered species), Wildlife, Yoga and Zoos. And for the more app-minded, there is also Moonbot Studio’s contribution to the ABCs: The Numberlys.

Screenshot from The Numberlys, William Joyce, Moonbot Studios, 2012
Screenshot from The Numberlys
William Joyce, Moonbot Studios, 2012

Myriapod starts with the advantage of this long, long “previously on …” in our hearts and minds. In exploiting its advantage, Mysteries of Vernacular takes us on a gentle rootle round the attic and cellar of our language and social history.  The tradition of the abecedary and the disciplines of history and etymology offer a natural canvas on which Myriapod’s animation projects numerous techniques of book art. The intaglio carving reminds us not only of Beube, Dettmer and Mlászho but more so of Nerhol (the collaboration persona of Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka) and the work entitled Oratorical Type.

Oratorical Type by Nerhol (Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka)
Oratorical Type by Nerhol (Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka)
Oratorical Type by Nerhol (Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka)
Oratorical Type by Nerhol (Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka)

The Mysteries’ wooden desktop framing recalls Abelardo Morell‘s A Book of Books.

Water Alphabet, 1998 Abelardo Morell
Water Alphabet, 1998
Abelardo Morell

The animated book folds are enchanting (although they might have but do not aspire to the level of origami achieved by artists and craftworkers like Heather Eddy).

The Alphabet Tutorial Heather Eddy, 2011
The Alphabet Tutorial
Heather Eddy, 2013
little letters Heather Eddy, 2013
little letters
Heather Eddy, 2013

More extensively used and in keeping with the more two-dimensional feel of Mysteries is the technique of papercutting (as distinct from carving) on display with the letter W. The technique dates to the Tang Dynasty (618 -906 AD) but, in this context, harks back more recently to Victorian silhouette artistry.

Victorian Silhouette Abecedary
Victorian Silhouette Abecedary

The series of 26 episodes so rich in content and technique is addictive. You will find yourself, as with any well-done abecedary, wishing for more letters in the alphabet. Although there is a vast vocabulary of other vernacular awaiting treatment, at a production cost of $80,000 per episode, it is likely those words will wait a long time. So we are left with having to remember our anticipation. Not all anticipation is more often enjoyed in itself rather than its resolution. You have 26 windows of opportunity to learn in Mysteries of Vernacular.

Do not wait.

Look here, here and here for more abcedaries. And here for the online exhibition at the University of Delaware.

 

Bookmark for Literacy — Tom Chatfield

Tom Chatfield’s short essay “I Type, Therefore I Am” celebrates the increasingly rapid rise of literacy.

At some point in the past two million years, give or take half a million, the genus of great apes that would become modern humans crossed a unique threshold. Across unknowable reaches of time, they developed a communication system able to describe not only the world, but the inner lives of its speakers. They ascended — or fell, depending on your preferred metaphor — into language.

The vast bulk of that story is silence. Indeed, darkness and silence are the defining norms of human history. The earliest known writing probably emerged in southern Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago but, for most of recorded history, reading and writing remained among the most elite human activities: the province of monarchs, priests and nobles who reserved for themselves the privilege of lasting words. …

In the past few decades, more than six billion mobile phones and two billion internet-connected computers have come into the world. As a result of this, for the first time ever we live not only in an era of mass literacy, but also — thanks to the act of typing onto screens ­— in one of mass participation in written culture.

via Tom Chatfield – Language and digital identity.

This is territory bookmarked before in response to Ferris Jabr’s “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age” — Bookmarking a Bookburning II — but it occupies higher ground.

Bookmarking a Book Burning – II

tumblr_l26w5m1KrM1qzg1xu
Untitled, Unknown student artist.

Ferris Jabr’s article “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens” in Scientific American (April 11, 2013) revisits the themes raised in Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid mentioned in the previous posting.   Jabr highlights much insightful writing on the neuroscience of reading, on which more in a bit.  He begins, however, with a “haptic” anecdote that will resonate with parents and grandparents of children who are learning to read now or have learned in the last 3-5 years.

In a viral YouTube video from October 2011 a one-year-old girl sweeps her fingers across an iPad’s touchscreen, shuffling groups of icons. In the following scenes she appears to pinch, swipe and prod the pages of paper magazines as though they too were screens. When nothing happens, she pushes against her leg, confirming that her finger works just fine—or so a title card would have us believe.

Earlier the same year, I was lying in bed with an iPad reading Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov.  As the story drew me in and admittedly as the hour grew late, I found myself repeatedly reaching into the upper right-hand corner of the screen with my left forefinger and thumb to pick up and “turn the page.”  I had not developed the habit of “sweeping” or “tapping” to move through the book.  These real-life mirror images of the haptic habits of a young soon-to-be reading brain and an old reading brain bring Wolf’s speculations alive.

Numerous studies cited by Jabr suggest different areas of the brain at work in screen reading vs print reading and connect that to poorer retention and comprehension in screen reading than print reading.   But one of the more recent ones (“Metacognitive regulation of text learning: On screen versus on paper,” by Ackerman and Goldsmith) shows that where readers

studied expository texts of 1000–1200 words in one of the two media and for each text […] provided metacognitive prediction-of-performance judgments with respect to a subsequent multiple-choice test[,] [u]nder fixed study time (Experiment 1), test performance did not differ between the two media, but when study time was self-regulated (Experiment 2) worse performance was observed on screen than on paper. The results suggest that the primary differences between the two study media are not cognitive but rather metacognitive—less accurate prediction of performance and more erratic study-time regulation on screen than on paper.

S0 the reading brain may not be rewiring itself, but print and screen do demand different strategies of reading and study.  Might the “haptic habits” of physically turning the page or recalling three dimensionally the place in the book and on the page where a sentence occurs (or pinching, swiping and prodding) be clues to how we learn to learn what we read?  What we may be seeing in the one-year old are the beginnings of the metacognitive cues that will raise the performance of tomorrow’s screen reading brains, and in Ackerman’s and Goldsmith’s subjects, the familiarity of today’s reading brains with the metacognitive cues so key to studying from print that the students print out the relevant ebook chapter.

As Jabr concludes,   “When it comes to intensively reading long pieces of plain text, paper and ink may still have the advantage. But text is not the only way to read.”

Which harks back to the conclusion of the previous post and  Jerome Bruner’s  apt observation of Vygotsky’s fondness for Bacon’s epigram, “Nec manus, nisi intellectus, sibi permissus, multum valent” (Neither hand nor intellect left each to itself is worth much)” (247).   Perhaps neither print nor digital left each to itself is sufficient.

Bookmarking Book Art — A to Z in Bas Relief

Oratorical Type by Nerhol (Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka)
Oratorical Type A by Nerhol (Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka)
Oratorical Type Z by Nerhol (Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka)
Oratorical Type Z by Nerhol (Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka)

 

 

 

The Japanese artists and partners Ryuta Iida and Yoshihisa Tanaka are known as NERHOL.  Interviewed by Rebecca Fulleylove in the online magazine It’s Nice That, they explain the name:

We met at one of Iida’s exhibition and realised we had so much in common in regards to experience, design and taste. Gradually, we began working together. Our very first piece, Oratorical Type, used books as the theme, after sculpting them by carefully carving out certain sections of each page, it resulted in interesting dimensions. At that time, we still hadn’t decided on our name but soon came up with “NERHOL”, a mash-up of two words, “neru” to plan ideas and “holu” to sculpt and carve.

“To plan ideas” and “to sculpt and carve” those ideas in air, time, stone, wood or paper is that not a poem, a book, a building, a city — the work of art?  That these two artists chose the letters of the alphabet as their first work together, that the alphabet and each of its letters came into being by collective human art and craft marking our passage from orality to literacy and that the alphabet, type and book are tools by which we have strived to evolve — how could they not be named Nerhol and their first work of art not be called Oratorical Type?

Bookmarking a Book Burning – I

Julian Baggini (Aeon) has posted a thoughtful piecejulian-baggini-burning-books on the need for an important cultural artifact to evolve — not just in its codex form but in its very essence — the encyclopedia.  One reader/viewer (there’s a video as well) commented:

Which is worse? Burning books because they are now available in an electronic format? Or not having any physical books to burn, unless you steal them from a museum or collector?

Hold that thought (an “argument by false dichotomy”) and go to Baggini’s concluding paragraph:

I can’t help but mourn the passing of my set of Britannicas, but I do not mourn the passing of the institution. Encyclopædias have passed their use-by-date as fitting symbols for the esteem in which we hold culture and learning. The world is changing, and books, magazines and education have to change with it. Nostalgia for obsolete publications serves us only if we use it to remind us of the things we really value, and want to take forward into our own new world.

What if, though, the things we value and want to take forward into our new world are caught up in the “affordances” of such tangible institutions as the encyclopedia.  Maryanne Wolf hits this chord hard in Proust and the Squid when she worries about the effect of the Google universe on the nature of her children’s ability to read:

Reading is a neuronally and intellectually circuitous act, enriched as much by the unpredictable indirections of a reader’s inferences and thoughts as by the direct message from the eye to the text. … Will the constructive component at the heart of reading begin to change and potentially atrophy as we shift to computer-presented text, in which massive amounts of information appear instantaneously? … is there either sufficient time or sufficient motivation to process the information more inferentially, analytically and critically? … Or does the potential added information from hyperlinked text contribute to the development of the child’s thinking? …

I stray with these questions. But indeed we stray often when we read.  Far from being negative, this associative dimension is part of the generative quality at the heart of reading. … Charles Darwin saw in creation a similar principle, … ‘From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.’  So it is with written language.  Biologically and intellectually, reading allows the species to go ‘beyond the information given’ to create endless thoughts most beautiful and wonderful.   We must not lose this essential quality in our present moment of historical transition to new ways of acquiring, processing and comprehending information. (pp. 16-17)

To go back to Baggini’s troubled reader/viewer, we will not burn books because we have them electronically.  As our different types of books evolve, some we will have electronically only and some we will have both in print and electronically.  We already have many digitised rare books and manuscripts in libraries, museums and collectors’ holdings.  Most people’s exposure to those works can only be electronic, and the more this is the case, the less the need to steal them.   But also the greater the need to understand and innovate to address the loss of tactility and the proprioceptive experience of “curling up with a good book.”  In alluding to Jerome Bruner’s collection of essays Beyond the Information Given, Wolf is reminding us (linking us?) to Bruner’s apt observation that Lev Vygotsky, the famous Soviet developmental psychologist, “was fond of an epigram from Bacon, “Nec manus, nisi intellectus, sibi permissus, multum valent” (Neither hand nor intellect left each to itself is worth much)” (247).   Perhaps neither print nor digital left each to itself is sufficient.

Bookmark for Marginalia and Note-taking

Annotation function in Utopiadocs.
Annotation function in Utopiadocs. Copyright © 2012 Lost Island Labs.
imgres
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Herman Melville
New York, NY; Salem, MA, 1846-1850. ©2012 The President and Fellows of Harvard College

Earlier this month, we saw the release of the Open Annotation Community Group’s specification of the Open Annotation Core Data Model, an interoperable framework for creating annotations that can be easily shared between platforms.  The work, directed by Robert Sanderson and Paolo Ciccarese, began in earnest about six months ago, although it was proceeded by longstanding efforts within and between the editors of the Annotation Ontology and the Open Annotation Collaboration.  Under the auspices of the W3C, the efforts merged into the Open Annotation Community Group (OACG).

The OACG model defines an annotation as “a set of connected resources, typically including a body and target, where the body is somehow about the target,” and the full model  “supports additional functionality, enabling semantic annotations, embedding content, selecting segments of resources, choosing the appropriate representation of a resource and providing styling hints for consuming clients.”    Public rollout events are scheduled for 9 April (Stanford University), 6 May (University of Maryland) and 24 June (University of Manchester).

Back in November last year, while the Open Annotation Community Group (OACG) was thrashing through how to handle collections of annotations and other ontological issues, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University held a two-day symposium called “Take Note,”  marking the conclusion of a two-year project on the history and future of note-taking.  The project also resulted in a virtual exhibition of objects and works from the Harvard University Collections with notes ranging from a price list inscribed on a potsherd to a clothes list on papyrus found in an Egyptian garbage dump to Herman Melville’s annotations of his review copy of Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse (see image above).    The exhibition was curated by Greg AfinogenovAnn Blair and Leah Price, and interestingly, the OACG’s Paolo Ciccarese contributed to building the exhibition’s website.

So besides Paolo Ciccarese’s involvement, what’s the connection between these two events?   Perhaps the link is captured in three comments from the participants:

Bill Sherman, historian at the University of York and author of Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, commented to a reporter,  “We’re now in a moment where we’re leaving behind fewer traces of our reading than ever before…. We may have moved to the turning point where…we’ll have to find new ways to leave more behind.” And as Matthew Kirschenbaum has spelt out in Mechanisms, historians will have to learn new ways to decipher what is left behind.

David Weinberger, author of The Cluetrain Manifesto and long-time blogger, tweeted (according to the Harvard Gazette reporter), “”Collaborative notetaking via etherpad or GoogleDocs etc. is often a great way to go. Fascinating to participate in, too,’ during an afternoon presentation that explored digital annotation tools.”  Like Bob Stein, the co-founder of the FutureoftheBook.com, Weinberger is a champion of social reading and collaborative creativity.

Another participant told the Gazette’s reporter, “’I was struck by the request that we send our notes into Radcliffe because my reaction was, “You know, my notes are really none of your business. My notes are my private thoughts, my private collaborations.” Until I am dead, I don’t really need other people looking at them.'”  That last comment is particularly fetching:  one wonders whether William James and Herman Melville had such an eye on posterity as they scribbled their notes now on display across the Web.

As the book evolves and we annotate works in our ereaders (offline or online), how do we ensure that they persist, and whether offline or online, how do we handle how private or public those notes will be?

Earlier this month, Books on Books raised proprietorial questions about annotated ebooks in response to Nicholas Carr’s article “Used e-book, slightly foxed” sparked by the Amazon patent for selling pre-loved ebooks.  On his site, Carr responded with his own questions:

“[W]hat’s the relationship (legal and otherwise) between an e-book and the annotations added to it by its reader? Are the annotations attached to the particular copy of the e-book, and allowed to remain attached to it when it passes to a new reader, or do the annotations exist in a separate sphere — say, in a personal online database that is the property of the individual reader? … what right does the copyright holder (in particular, the author) hold over the way an e-book is presented? If annotations, or other metadata, in effect become part of the text, permanently or even temporarily, then does that represent a modification of the work that requires the consent of the author? You can’t publish an annotated print edition of a book under copyright without the copyright holder’s permission. Do different rules apply to an e-book?” (Carr’s questions elicited an interesting comment at Futureofthebook.com:  “perhaps the interdependence of print and screen books is inevitable….”)

In some respects, by digitizing and reproducing others’ property (appropriately acquired through bequests, gifts and so on), the Harvard University Collections’ virtual exhibition illustrates Carr’s questions and those of the symposia participants — even the comment from Future of the Book — in a beautifully “tangible” way.  Think upon it.