Haptics, Lovely Objects, Archives, and e-readers

On Friday during the first panel, and particularly during its Q&A, there was a great deal of concern about the loss of haptic experience when we read electronically, the ways that archival research is changed by digitization, and where the book as an object (especially a beloved, sensuous object) is left as these shifts happen.

A few things struck me as odd about this conversation and the way it was framed. The first is the assumption that reading on an e-reader is not a haptic experience. It is; that is why when the iPad came out there were people rushing to the store to pick it up, hold it. It is also why so much time is spent considering how to adorn e-readers, do we want them to be nubbly, leather bound, or bamboo. Each person can make more choices about what they want their book to feel like now than they could thirty years ago. Of course, we don’t change the cover based on whether we are reading an electronic copy of Stephen King’s The Stand or an electronic copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (and I will grant that presents a problem, but perhaps not an unsolvable one).

This issue of the haptic is already being solved, bit by bit. As Reid-Cunningham noted, books might become more “boutique.” Nouvella, a small press in California prints small runs of novellas by emerging authors and offers those for a week as a “launch” and then continues to sell them as e-books after that. Their books are lovely objects. I adore the one I have. It is small, fitting into the back pocket of my jeans and has a butter smooth cover and lovely design. Also, it’s a signed first edition by an author whose career I believe in. Of course I’ll hang on to that! And I’ll encourage my friends to buy the ebook; the object, but not the content, can be boutique.

I do not worry about people falling in love with reading, or falling in love the objects associated with reading. I don’t worry about archives. Instead, I am amazed by the possibilities that digitization allows. To discuss this I have two examples, both of which show how easily the gateway is held open between the digital and the archival, paper page. In both cases, the haptic archival moment is expanded and made more accessible. When that gateway is open, and librarians, scholars, and writers work together the best things about each mode are preserved.

Recently, my partner went to visit the Maine Women’s Writers Collection at the University of New England in Portland Maine to see the papers of Margaret Mussey Sweat. Sweat wrote perhaps the first American lesbian novel, and the archive is not much visited. He spent a day and a half looking through her papers, and because his time with the archive was limited, he took pictures of many things with his iPhone. He digitized an archive that never had been before. And posted it a page of it on Facebook. Posting this one page on Facebook meant that there were probably twenty of his friends and colleagues working with him to figure out some spidery script.

Poet Jill McDonough hoards digitized primary sources and then shares them with her students. Here she describes just how transformative that experience is for the poems her students write and for her own writing. As a former student of hers, I can say that it makes me more, not less, likely to seek out the physical archive. She mentioned to me recently that there is a shelf of old anatomy books in the basement of the Athenaeum, and I want to be there now instead of writing this.

Friday morning, visiting the archive exhibit, the aesthetic choices of the past resonated deeply with me, in ways that their creators might not have been able to anticipate. They were just considering the priorities of their moment. Similarly, we can’t say what our aesthetic priorities will be in the future, but we’ll still have them. Reading will continue to be a thing we do with our bodies. Finding ways to, not just preserve, but also expand reading practices and haptic experience of the page can be one of the opportunities not just the anxieties of the book now.