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Jim Cullen: Review of Andrew Piper's "Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times" (Chicago, 2012)

Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, has just been published by Oxford University Press. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

A Facebook friend of mine recently posted a dilemma: a lover of books, she received a Barnes & Noble Nook for Christmas. She was intrigued by the prospect of dipping into the world of e-books, but somehow felt it would be an act of disloyalty -- or, at any rate, a prescription for a messy bibliographic life. I replied by telling her that having both kinds of books was akin to having running shoes and boots in your closet: each has its advantages. A bound book is still my default setting, all things being equal. But if the reading in question is highly disposable, or is most cheaply and/or rapidly acquired electronically, I go that route.

Andrew Piper, who teaches German and European literature at McGill University, has clearly been thinking longer and harder about such things. The conclusions he reaches in this evocative little book are similarly pragmatic -- his analysis toggles between cold type and hot type, refusing to condemn the former to oblivion or the latter to inferiority, attentive to their convergences as well as divergences -- but he has a remarkable feel for the textures of reading as an experience, and the ways it has, and hasn't, changed over the centuries.

I choose the noun "feel" advisedly. The first of the seven essays that comprise Book Was There -- the title comes from the ever-quotable Gertrude Stein -- focuses on the tactile dimensions of reading, the way it literally and figuratively becomes an object of our attention. Interestingly, Piper shows that this is no less true of electronic reading, which is always delivered to us in some form that engages our hands (think of the swipe or tap as the digital analogue of turning a page). Reading is not only intensely tactile; it's also deeply visual in more than a lexicographic way; another chapter, "Face, Book," shows how a fascination with faces in the print medium long preceded Mark Zuckerberg's innovations in social networking.

One of the more important insights that animates Book Was There is Piper's recognition that the book has always represented a minority presence on the literary landscape since the codex displaced the scroll almost two millennia ago. Books beguile us because they frame text into mirroring images in the form of pages. But other kinds of print sprawled (think here of nineteenth century "mammoth" news- and storypapers), and in this regard the flow of scroll of text on a computer screen is less an innovation than a recrudescence of earlier reading experience.

But Piper is not content simply to explain away the new in terms of the old. He's also intrigued by fresh ways of thinking about reading and writing. A chapter on the role of marginal note-taking explores the interplay of handwriting and electronic annotation and what each has to offer. Another chapter, "In the Trees," describes new ways of rendering books in terms of numerical data that can be quite striking (if a little elusive, at least for those of us with thoroughly conventional notions of what it means to read a text). So it is that we learn, for example, that Stein's 1925 novel The Making of Americans is marked by some intriguing symmetries (the phrase "any such thing" appears exactly ten times in the chapters Stein deploys it, and the longest string of words in the book appears exactly at its midpoint, suggesting a cyclical architecture girding a presumably horizontal narrative. Another illustration of Walter Benjamin's classic essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" literally flowers on the page when sorted into stems that represent the length of sentences and buds that stand for different categories of words.

A child of the computer age, Piper, who was born in 1973, mentions attending a computer camp as a child, and programming the TS-80 -- what might be termed the Model T of personal computers. As such, his background seems closer to a Gates or a Jobs than it does a future professor of literature. But his, measured, polished, suggestive prose leaves little doubt that his range is good deal wider than binary.

In a recent blog post, Piper confesses that he's less confident than he once was that print books will continue jostle alongside electronic media indefinitely. I was a little disappointed to hear him say that; my working analogy has been books are to plays as e-books are to movies. But if the book is mortal, as all media are, it seems unlikely to disappear entirely any time soon. Book Was There is a reminder that we should savor this world of textual diversity and celebrate its possibilities rather than simply fret about the end of a world.