How to paint an eclipse. (Pro tip: Work quickly!) How the military changed food science, with the MRE. Audio recordings from the 1930s and 40s of former slaves, reflecting on their lives during and post-slavery. A short anthropological history of human sleep arrangements. A short history of communist bookstores. Border collies can “fast-map” (infer the name of a new, unfamiliar object) with the acumen of a three-year-old human. A graveyard of software. Datacrunch of the lexical complexity and affective metrics of YA fiction. The problems of, in the digital age, having the last name “Null.“
When people found out what I was doing, they often claimed it was aesthetically bonkers. Isn’t it uncomfortable and weird, they wondered, to read such a massive book in tiny screenfuls? You can’t fit many words on a single screen. Indeed, I tend to blow my font-size up pretty big, so there’s barely one or two hundred words on each Kindle page.
But the thing is, this made the experience oddly retro. Visually, a Kindle screen on a mobile phone harkens back to … the early days of novels.
Back in the 18th and 19th century, people often read novels that were printed in the teensy “octavo” format. It made books extremely portable, so they were, in way, much like the iphones of the premodern period: Pocketable culture. Here’s a page from Conjectures on Original Composition, a book from 1759 by the English poet Edward Young:
Looks rather like a iphone Kindle screen, doesn’t it?
At any rate, today I discovered an essay by Sarah Boxer describing her even more Olympic feat of novel-phone-reading: The entire 1.2-million text of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. (That’s the first page, above, on my phone.)
Boxer did an even better job of describing the peculiar aesthetic delights of reading a ginormous book screen by screen. Let me quote it here at length:
Soon you will see that the smallness of your cellphone (my screen was about two by three inches) and the length of Proust’s sentences are not the shocking mismatch you might think. Your cellphone screen is like a tiny glass-bottomed boat moving slowly over a vast and glowing ocean of words in the night. There is no shore. There is nothing beyond the words in front of you. It’s a voyage for one in the nighttime. Pure romance.
In a curious way, I think reading Proust on your cellphone brings out the fathomless something in the novel that Shattuck calls “the most oceanic—and the least read” of 20th-century classics. It makes you feel like Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo in his submarine, which is just right. As Benjamin Taylor notes in his biography, Proust: The Search, this is how Jean Cocteau described the writer at work in his bedroom, the cork-lined retreat on Boulevard Haussmann that Proust called “a little bottle stop” muffling the sounds of the world.
Although Proust knew exactly where he was heading when he put together his masterwork—he began with the first and last parts, then turned to the middle—the same cannot be said for his readers, no matter how they tackle his text. They are at sea. This is what makes reading the novel such hard going, particularly in the middle. It is also what makes the experience extraordinary.
Knowing where you are, physically, in a bound book keeps you from feeling this oceanic feeling quite so much. It keeps you grounded. But reading the book on your cellphone emphasizes your own smallness, your at-sea-ness, in relation to the vast ocean. There you are, moving along without any compass. How brave you are in your little dinghy, adrift and amazed.
That’s such a great metaphor: The book as an ocean, the e-reader as a tiny porthole!
It reminds me of the way I look at paintings in galleries: I zoom in as close as I can, so I can examine the tiny individual brushstrokes in as much detail as possible.
I once read a piece by an artist noting that painters experience their painting in two modes — up super-close, and from far back. A lot of the time they’re hunched over the canvas, going stroke by stroke. So, as the artist pointed out, if you want to see what that experience was like, you want to get as close as physically possible to the completed painting, and study it from barely an inch or two away. (As you can imagine, shoving my nose right up to a canvas does not make me super popular amongst art-gallery guards; I’ve nearly been tazed at the Art Gallery of Ontario, trying to get myself with microns of Tom Thomson’s The West Wind.) But as the artist went on to note in his article, painters also frequently stand back ten or twenty feet to appreciate the overall scope of what they’re doing — so you too ought to zoom out often as you’re absorbing a painting. The painter’s experience of their own painting is simultaneously a) brushstroke by brushstroke and b) twenty feet away.
It occurred to me once, while nose-close with a painting, that novels (and other forms of longform writing) have a bit of the same dual-focus aspect: The writer composes word by word, sentence by sentence — but also has the entire text in mind. We readers experience the whole book both as a single bolus of culture and a collection of individual thrilling sentences or passages.
Boxer’s lovely metaphor comes the closest I’ve seen to evoking that literary duality.