There seems to be a rule among old literary dogs that we all have to moan and groan about the internet and computers. I do share the prevailing angst about the extinction of the book store. Book stores civilize cities, as do parks, sidewalks, statuary, and a level of crime high enough to scare away gentrifying urban professionals.
The book, too, it is said, is on its way out. First they came for the snow leopard, then the hardback version of War and Peace. I think this exaggerates the book or in general paper media situation. However, it is true that one of the defining physical characteristics of the book – a page that must be turned – is on the way to minority status.
In the past fifteen years, I have read perhaps as many texts on computers, on pdf, epub and djvu, as I have in the media that was current when I was a lad. I am not unhappy about this.
Its deeper effect on my reading is, perhaps, to replace the unconscious expectation that is given to a reader by the mechanism of using his finger to turn the page. Epub, which I read on Ipad, cleverly reconstructs that experience, so that it doesn’t disappear altogether into a vague nostalgia, like the feel of squeezing your finger into a hole on the rotary dial to make a call on a phone. This, like turning a page, was one of the affordances of the index finger. However, the epub experience does not completely materialize the older reading experience, any more than a three d movie really makes you feel like you are moving in space. The older experience links us to a world of vegetation that pre-existed our very species, which our ancestors scrambled down in the long morning of the Holocene. In other words, even with the epub, our monkeyness is thwarted.
Perhaps that monkeyness is what is engaged in the page-turner – a hand-eye activity like scooting through the branches in a tree. Of course, there is the desire to know what is next. But perhaps the satisfaction of the primate self and the satisfaction of our curiosity are interlinked. And perhaps in reading a pdf, there’s a bit of a shock deep down, a dull thud among us vieux garcons, as our monkeyness falls out of the tree for real.
This, though, ignores the hand’s participation in scrolling. So far, we don’t have voice commands for it – rather, it is a carpal activity. Scrolling does, however, rather unmoor the page-trained reader. The page as a unit is no longer viable. The scroll takes in half a page or a page and a half. It may preserve the old space between one page and another, but it is a space that is no longer validated by a turn. The passages in a book leap out in a different way than they do on a page by page basis.
I recently reread Chesteron’s The Man Who was Thursday on the computer. I used both a pdf version and an epub. The pdf was digitalized for the Internet Archive and was missing some pages. The epub I got somewhere else.
Chesterton dealt in the page – turner genre, the mystery or thriller, but one doesn’t chase his puzzles like one chases, say, the puzzles of H.G. Wells or John Buchan, even.As Chesterton himself said, the MWWT is a bad novel, if one judges by the conventions of the novel, but it is an excellent surface upon which Chesterton mounted his beautiful paradoxes and an allegorical poem, of sorts. Chesterton warns the reader in the subtitle: a Nightmare. It is more like an allegorical vision, however, except much funnier than Piers Plowman. But the fabula, to use the Russian formalist term, is much more tedious than the syuzhet. The plot device of an anarchist conspiracy in which all the anarchists are really secret policemen is good – it makes for a fine farce – but Chesterton is not interested enough in the mechanics of revelation to remove the tediousness from the exposure, one after the other, of the anarchs as cops. Chesterton never absorbed a single lesson from the master, Henry James. Wells, who has a similar allegorical bent, did. Chesterton’s master was the fairy tale, but his sensibility was shrank too much from the sadistic side of H C Anderson and the Grimms. His fairy tale model was Victorian, a matter that was sieved through the middle class morality of Andrew Lang.
To get back to my thesis, what this means is that Chesterton’s words often hang on the page as unturnable wholes. We don’t feel these words are engaged in a chase, but rather, the frieze portraying a chase. In that sense, TMWWT is as unturnable as The Gay Science (a comparison that Chesterton would have loathed).
It is a matter of various kinds of turns, really. Chesterton chose the turn of the phrase over the turn of the page. The turn of the phrase, in turn, overturns the inversions characteristic of Wildean paradox. It is as if Chesterton came upon the back, or shadow, side of the commonplaces that Wilde was always showing up. But in doing this in a narrative, he mader the page a heavier business.
Still, it was the business Chesterton knew. When the page form floats away, it makes the story part of the book even more of an irritant. On the other hand, the beautiful passages, which are what one remembers of Chesterton, stand out, although they still feel like they have not been roughed up by experience. The famous passage at the end, for instance.
Syme sprang to his feet, shaking from head to foot.
"I see everything," he cried, "everything that there is. Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe? For the same reason that I had to be alone in the dreadful Council of the Days. So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter.
I began this meaning to protest against the old dog growling about the sin and shame of reading on computers, but I see that, by now, I have varied the bark but barked nevertheless. Well… I am an old man. I have heard the mermaids singing each to each, but I do not think that they will sing to me.