THE IMMUTABLE ACT
Every change of instrument implies a change of action, but not perhaps in the way we imagine. E-books, virtual libraries, i-pads allow us to read in ways we never read before: we can now carry whole libraries in our pocket and, from our own bedroom, we can access volumes ensconced in the remotest libraries. And yet, sophisticated readers complain that the new gadgets don’t have the sensual qualities of the printed book, the erotic touch, the comforting smell; that they lack the hierarchical distinctions that used to exist between paperbacks and hardbacks; that they have none of the aristocratic features of leather-bindings and marbled end-paper pages. No doubt similar complaints were heard from Sumerian tablet-readers with the arrival of the scroll, and from Roman scroll-readers with the arrival of the codex. The socialist Georges Orwell was appalled by the invention of the Penguin tascabile. “In my capacity as writer I pronounce them anathema,” he said in 1935.
“The result may be a flood of cheap reprints which will cripple the lending libraries and check the output of new novels.”
Of course, like every technology, the electronic media has its own particular problems. It requires far more attention to the technology itself (all those up-dates, all those new-fangled improvements!); it lends readers the unhealthy illusion of possessing almost any book in the world (since almost any book can be summoned up at the touch of a finger); it does not endorse the virtues of intellectual difficulty, slow reading, pondering a page, remembering passages and comparing them mentally to others, memorizing for instruction and pleasure, digesting and glossing a text (it is far too fast and undiscerning.)
Even features of the reader’s freedom have been co-opted by the new technology. Reading as fancy takes us, opening a book at any page and closing it at any other, jumping from one chapter to an earlier or later one, skipping passages that look boring or abstruse or irrelevant, are now the unconscious privilege of the machine. Give the electronic text a command –“Find” or “Go To”—and it will obey like a well-trained dog. And like a well-trained dog, the electronic technology encourages readers to delegate the essentials of their craft, with something of the superciliousness of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s aristocrats: “Vivre? Les domestiques feront cela pour nous.”
Skipping paragraphs, pages or even entire books is a privilege I’m reluctant to surrender: I don’t want a machine (or a dog) to do it for me. Over a century ago, the reverend Sydney Smith confessed: "I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so." As usual with Smith, (one of the funniest writers in the English language) he’s not only amusing: he's also right. In a primordial sense, to criticise a book, beyond declaring whether we like it or not, calls for reflection on a given subject with which we suppose the book concerns itself. That reflection, in order to be of any interest to another reader, should not be a parroting of the book in question, but a meditative essay, an attempt to put forward gathered intuitions and interwoven knowledge on the subject. As a reader of criticism, I don't much care for someone else's précis of a book -- though that too may be revealing, as when Shakespeare summed up the Iliad by saying: "All the argument is a cuckold and whore."
Skipping is an art and is performed by readers in many different ways. For example:
• The cursory reading: A quick glance at Leopardi's Zibaldone may give you a fair idea of the style and contents, certainly sufficient to form an opinion. This is Paolo and Francesca's reading of il Galeotto: a quick inspection and they both know that the theme of the romance is love and that it demands action. Maybe that is why Dante, an in-depth reader if there ever was one, felt such pity for them.
• The incomplete reading: The first and last chapters of I Promessi Sposi may not be enough to know all the details of the plot, but certainly suffice to make us love it or reject it. Borges boasted that he gave lectures on Finnegans Wake without having read more than two or three episodes.
• The empathetic reading: Books that are part of our culture --the Bible, Das Kapital, The Arabian Nights, Don Quixote-- become ours because they are everyone else's, so that we can say, hand on our heart, "Faust is an important book" without ever having opened it. (This, by the way, is how Dante judges the works of Homer, whom he never read.)
• The social reading: Depending on what social group embraces or derides a certain book, we can choose sides while foregoing its actual reading. We can condemn Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and praise Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil without opening either because we are aware that Roberto Calasso scorns the former and endorses the latter. This method can also be called "reading by allegiance."
• The deceitful reading: Often a certain book, because of the prestige it carries, tempts us to cheat, to say we've read it when we haven’t, because, like in the academic game of 'Humiliation' played in David Lodge's novel Trading Places, which consists of confessing to a famous book we have not read, we don't want to appear uncultured and don't dare say that we've never read Hamlet, but will allow that Spinoza's Theologisch-Politischer Traktat is not often on our night-table.
• The political reading: Because of the outrage provoked by certain books (Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, Günter Grass' Beim hauten der Zwiebel) readers assume a prise de position avant la lettre; that is to say, they form an opinion based on someone else's indignation about a book no one seems to have read. Of all kinds of “skipping”, this, which we might also term "reading by hearsay," is the one that in many cases, for those who finally get to the book and sit down and read it, proves to be utterly wrong.
Can we regain the reading privileges that we seem to have, up to a point, lost? No doubt we can: by reflecting on the orders we give our computer, by choosing consciously when to read a printed page and when a screen, by asking ourselves (paraphrasing Diderot) “But who shall be the master? The tool for reading or the reader?” Also, by remembering that we are still far from the last chapter and that, not many years from now, new readers will look in amazement at our electronic gadgets and wonder what we were doing with these old-fashioned machines. The truth is that, in essence, as far as reading is concerned, only the instruments change. The act of putting into words our own deepest emotions and our most secret fears, of rescuing experience, of making present the speaker who is not there and yet speaking to us, has remained immutable since the days of the first readers in Sumer. A letter written in the early eighteenth century B.C. echoes that which any reader today might say upon reception of an e-mail from a beloved friend. “Bulattal brought me your letter,” it says, “and I am much delighted: I had the impression that you and I had met and that we had embraced.” Then as today, this quotidian act of magic that allows us to meet and embrace across space and time, still defines us as human beings.