Notes Toward a Proleptic History of Electronic Reading

Notes Toward a Proleptic History of Electronic Reading

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
Riposte to: 

Matthew Kirschenbaum rethinks the final section of First Person in light of “five basic strategies for furthering the history of reading.”

The final section of First Person includes essays by N. Katherine Hayles, Jill Walker, and Nick Montfort under the rubric of New Readings. The first two are close readings, of Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia and Online Caroline respectively; Montfort gives us something more akin to genre theory (his specific subject is interactive fiction). Anyone who follows the volume in sequence will notice that while it moves from cyberdrama to games and simulations to hypertext and even chat, its final pages are devoted to the humble act of reading. For some this might seem a quaint gesture, a whiff of those cigars in the drawing room Michael Joyce once wrote about; that would be wrong.

Robert Darnton, perhaps the best known historian of the book working today, notes that histories of reading are elusive. Despite some success with what he terms macro-analytical methods - predominantly the domain of Continental scholars who have scoured catalogs and public records to compile vast stores of data on the demographics of reading from the sixteenth century forward - and further success with micro-analytics - the study of individual readers and their collections; Carlo Ginzburg’s Menocchio is the archetype here - we are still far removed from the cognitive seat of reading: “We do not even understand the way we read ourselves, despite the efforts of psychologists and neurologists to trace eye movements and map the hemispheres of the brain” (151). Darnton proposes five basic strategies for furthering the history of reading, and I would like to briefly present them here, with specific reference to their application to electronic media.

A predictable academic exercise, you say. Sure. But talk of new media readers and readings is topical enough these days. In the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts has recently released a report entitled “Reading at Risk”, which concludes that there has been a precipitous decline in what it terms “literary reading” during the past twenty years. While the report draws no single conclusion as to why this is so, in several places it goes out of its way to observe that we live in an era of pervasive electronic media.

The NEA professes to be neutral with regard to the question of medium: reading is reading, regardless of whether it’s performed on the page or the screen. The danger it construes is that the nation is simply reading less, regardless of the text’s delivery media. Can this really be so? Would a more subtle account of reading in the present suggest otherwise? What does it mean that I am posing these questions on a Web page of the electronic book review addressing essays first printed in a university press volume?

Here are Darnton’s suggestions.

First, to recover “ideals and assumptions underlying reading in the past” (152). Here I would substitute present for past (taking a page from Lev Manovich, with his call for histories of the present). Perhaps the first step in this regard is to acknowledge that many of the most influential works of electronic literature and art that we have available to us are about precisely their own conditions of reading. Lexia to Perplexia is such a work, as Hayles’s essay makes clear; so too, however, is Online Caroline, where voyeurism, interaction, and other forms of user manipulation and control are expressed as explicit thematics in the narrative that unfolds. A resource such as the Electronic Literature Organization’s Directory therefore lists over two thousand works ripe for examining the “ideals and assumptions” underlying reading at the present. (E-Lit Up Close is an ongoing project of mine where I ask graduate students to contribute close readings of works of electronic literature to an emerging literary archive; it is open to participation from others.)

Darnton next suggests attention to the teaching of literacy. He has in mind primers and hornbooks and the like, but I see my three-year-old niece learning her ABCs sitting in front of the PC. Is anyone out there working on children’s software in the context of the history of literacy? I hope so.

Third, Darnton asks us to look to records of reading, in a variety of documentary forms. Here we are in luck, since electronic media are self-documenting to an extent that should make historians of pervious eras weep. Bookmark files, cookie caches, server logs, and the like are a treasure trove of raw data, conveniently already machine-readable and ripe for analytical crunching. Obviously the trick is to do something sensible or meaningful with all that data. On the other hand, not all such exploits need be relentlessly scholarly in nature. Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Adam Chapman, Brion Moss, and Duane Whitehurst’s Impermanence Agent , which builds its storyline in response to a user’s browsing is a step in this direction, as is forensic art such as Mary Flanagan’s Phage which takes its raw materials from the suppressed contents of its user’s hard drive.

Next we come to literary theory. Here the effort is well underway. Montfort’s essay is one exemplar, and there are many others - though oddly, from reading some of the contributions to First Person, one might conclude that literary critics alone are unique among the professoriate in their inability to talk about cybertexts. Newsflash: the notion that literary theory or literary criticism more generally is about “narrative” and nothing else is as parochial as the notion that games are all about reading.

Last on Darnton’s list is analytical bibliography. Analytical bibliography, it should be understood, refers to the study of books as physical objects, not to writing out long lists of books (bibliography of the list-making sort is properly referred to as enumerative bibliography to differentiate it from its other branches). I have written about this at length elsewhere, but here will simply say that scholars of new media could learn a lot from the dry-as-dust pages of Studies in Bibliography . How to talk seriously about a work like Olia Lialina’s My boyfriend came back from the war without being conversant in the many platforms, file formats, and software used to create its different versions?

Hayles, Walker, and Montfort each offer essays that fit in one or more of the categories above; my objective here has been to suggest a broader framework for how a history of reading in new media, of necessity a proleptic history, might unfold. If, as Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan’s subtitle has it, new media is “story, performance, and game” then First Person has done an admirable job of creating a common forum for all three; however, I believe there is still much to be gained from future work that charts any one of these paths more intensively. A history of reading in the present is such a project.

Works Cited

Darnton, Robert. “History of Reading.” New Perspectives on Historical Writing. Ed. Peter Burke. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. 140-167.