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Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times

Andrew Piper

(University of Chicago Press; US: Oct 2012)

Andrew Piper, professor of language and literature at McGill University, begins his reflective text with the act of picking up a book, and encouraging mindfulness about what it means to hold it in your hands. Markedly different than a long single sheet of paper wound into a scroll, a book mimics the shape of two hands folded together. We mark our place with a finger when we pause to look up, and though many now choose electronic books over paper, even the word ‘digital’ connotes a connection to the hands. In a time when many people are choosing to read on their iPads or Kindles and the like, Piper offers food for thought about the development of the physical object and its role in human society and history.


We used to use books as windows through which to gaze upon other cities, other frames of mind, other people’s lives. Social networking has that gaze from the outer world, back in on us. Our fascination with parading details in front of the window that are sometimes trivial and sometimes related to lifetime milestones detracts from what we can learn by observing how other people speak and act in a story, especially a story in a book, where there’s no opportunity to weigh in and “like” or RT the words or actions.


In a chapter dedicated to the act of sharing what we are reading, Piper notes that it’s easier than ever to share with our own communities, and yet the plethora of ways to share mean it’s more difficult to filter the meaning from the noise. The one way nature of a printed book makes it difficult to do more than engage on an individual level with the content. An electronic text, on the other hand, lends itself to copying and pasting passages and sharing them on our blogs, on Facebook, and more easily than ever within our essays and writings. Piper encourages us to be thoughtful about how we interact differently with a digital text compared to an ink and paper one. There’s more to the difference between a paper novel and its electronic counterpart than noticing the page numbers changing in the corner without the corresponding shift in weight from right hand to left as the story progresses.


Piper’s journey moves from the act of holding a book, to illustrating his points with artistic depictions of books being held, offered, and illustrated through the years, showing the value of the object. We take copies and various versions for granted today, so it’s nice to pause and consider how far this process has already come. Piper offers up points for the reader to consider where this journey may be going next.


Sharing books has been a natural human activity since reading became more prevalent amongst the general population. From sending books and poetry back and forth in the mail to an admirer or colleague, to sitting in a living room listening to a loved one reading aloud, we want to share and discuss new ideas we encounter. It seems it should be simpler than ever to share content and media with our audiences, whether they are family members or Internet friends. However, we’re shifting to sharing our own personal content over passages and quotations from existing works. Tightened controls on the sharing of media and the works of others go against this inborn desire to spread ideas and inspiring words, even as the amount of content going into the public domain slows to a trickle. Thank goodness for the Creative Commons, a movement to fight back against the criminalization of what has been for millennia a built in tendency to share with others.


Everything you put online is effectively public. Even if it’s “shared” with a limited audience or posted privately, it’s still quite likely on someone else’s server, which means you’re never getting it back. Plus nothing prevents a friend you shared something with from taking a screen capture and re-sharing it beyond your original intended audience. How do we control what we share when it’s so easy to put content out there, and so difficult to control where it spreads after we add words and images to a website?


Piper’s excellent collection of musings and provacative points about the history of the book lend insight to the projected future of this vehicle of shared knowledge and information. His final recommendation? Let go of the book, but don’t be too quick to assume that digital texts are the new universal medium for knowledge, culture sharing, and literary innovation. Continue to follow Piper’s journey on his website, BookWasThere.org.

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Lara co-hosts and produces the long-running tech and social media HD video podcast, commandN. She works in information management in Atlantic Canada after completing a professional Master's program in Library and Information Studies (MLIS) in 2010. Lara holds an MA in literature from Durham University (UK), and a BA from Boston College (US) in English and philosophy. She has been writing for PopMatters since early 2007. Her favorite authors include Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jasper Fforde. You can often find Lara on Twitter @larakillian.


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