Asocial Text

Writing is a fundamentally social activity. Even when you do it alone, in a locked room, wearing your new noise-canceling headphones, you are (hopefully) writing for someone. A private language, says Dr. Wittgenstein, is an impossibility. Reading is a social activity too, because at the very least, it is an encounter of two minds. But usually, there are many more minds involved: other texts, other writers, co-authors, co-readers, book clubs, literature professors, snooty bookstore employees, publishers, and book critics.

Yet, these are quiet social encounters. They require a measure of focus, solitude, and introspection. It would be a mistake then to envision the future of the book simply in terms of social media. Part of what makes a book a book is its ability to block a part of the present physical world in favor of atemporal virtual reality. The book literally blocks vision. It privileges mental constructs over immediate input of the senses. To be lost in a book is to project one’s sense of being into another world.

Let’s imagine then a better book, one that further protects the sanctity of mental life, at least for the duration of reading. Imagine a book which, when opened, literally surrounds its reader in a protective cocoon. Imagine a book that can balance the reader’s dopamine levels. Imagine a wearable winter coat book, a pillow and blanket book, an umbrella book, a climate-controlled book built like a house or a nuclear fallout shelter or a biodome.

Paper, as it turns out, is a pretty durable material—much more durable than, let’s say, silicon chips or copper circuit boards. It can also be used for insulation, it bends and burns better, and can make for versatile construction material (for the folding of paper planes, for example). I say this without irony and without fetishism or nostalgia. Whatever technology comes beyond the book, it should at the very least do all those things better than cloth and paper.

7 thoughts on “Asocial Text

  1. Bob Stein Bob Stein

    I think we have to ask why humans invented books in the first place. The best answer i can come up with is that the purpose was to move ideas around time and space. Before we figured out books (inscribed stones, scrolls and the codex) we sat around the proverbial campfire and talked to each other. Books mediate the conversation and make the ideas available to others separated by geography and time. I say this to challenge the idea that the book can ever be asocial. reading by yourself masks but doesn’t delete the fundamental social connections encoded in the text and the reading of it.

  2. The book can be a marker of asocial space: on the subway, in the library, even at a grownup cocktail party (as I often would use them in my childhood) books signal a certain distance and gesture of privacy. They are signals of many other things as well: in the classroom, the student with the battered used copy from the campus bookstore might send a different class signal from the kid with the new copy still in cellophane. Sometimes you don’t want people to know what book you’re reading.

    Turning to the future, how will affective or perceptual computing change these relationships, these constructions of social space? Will the cover of your e-reader change color to indicate to passers-by whether you’re *really* concentrating or just skimming? Will books themselves become protean, throwing you a cliffhanger or a sex scene when your attention threatens to wander?

    There’s a fundamental tension that your piece and Bob’s comment identify: books mediate a contested social space between the individual and society. Digital books, or whatever new platforms emerge, will also mediate these spaces but in new dimensions. Social media notifications, emotional and attention sensors, even motion sensors might all be dimensions on which a “smart” book mediates our level of connection to the world, deciding which interruptions can break through.

  3. Richard Nash

    This thing I find most attractive about this piece is that it begins to offer a typology of social reading, where one axis is loud-quiet. I think that’s valuable in terms of overcoming the tendency towards a binary approach to reading is/isn’t social. To what extent can the social dimension of reading be more ambient, as opposed to toggled off/on…?

  4. So James Longenbach in his essay “The Resistance to Poetry” talks about this tension between the social and the solitary as well. Here’s a paragraph: “In the artist of all kinds,” said the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, “one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the co-existence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.” The artist merely makes this tension manifest, since for Winnicott the human psyche is divided between a need to be known and the need to remain forever occluded. It is “a sophisticated game of hide-and-seek,” and a game impossible to win. For if “it is a joy to be hidden,” says Winnicott with a gnomic confidence worthy of Dickinson, it is “disaster not to be found.” The essay is here (for now, this link probably won’t last!): (and it’s impossible to link in these Comments without being UGLY!

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