“I Read the Audiobook”: Grappling with Digital Text

       On October 14th we were discussing digital books in class. It was obvious that everyone had an opinion whether they prefer digital books over tactile hard copies. If there was a point that came out of that discussion that was anywhere close to consensus it was this: we all use digital books. I think it’s safe to assume that everyone attending a Canadian university in the space year two thousand-twenty-one uses digital books and, barring some apocalyptic solar weather, everyone will be using them for the foreseeable future. On the topic of apocalypse, the point was raised that our studies have been able to continue through this ongoing pandemic due to the happy miracle of digital file sharing technology. What a (lucky?) time to be alive.

I Don’t Buy It, But I’ll Buy a Copy

        Are digital books just a cheaper way to sell a commercial product? Are we being bombarded by a ceaseless torrent of easily consumable audiobooks and self published conspiracy theories because they cost nothing to produce and they’re easy to sell? Again, the discussion was lively and varied while we explored these questions. There was concern from my peers regarding the authenticity of information – more specifically, how does one verify that information comes from a reputable authority in the digital age? The sheer volume of information alone makes it difficult to discern fact from fiction. Spend ten minutes on social media and you’re likely to come across either clickbait so absurd you willingly fall for it, or a political take so hot and spicy you forget the meaning of Poe’s law – probably both.

       I think we agreed that authority is possible to establish but only if verifying authority is important to the reader. Since almost anything can be self published with a facade of authority it really becomes the readers responsibility to verify as much. Since there is so much information available and a literate public ready and eager to consume the individual has the power, for better or worse, to “choose” his or her own narrative based on his or her needs or desires. We live in a sort of digital democracy of ideas and through our choices we can broaden our literary horizons or choose to hunker down in our comfort zones. It is all too easy to curate one’s own little discourse community and hide in an echo chamber.

       Words are also cheap these days. The majority of contemporary books can be purchased with the proceeds of a single day’s labor, either in physical or digital format, on Canada’s incoming federal minimum wage. For those lucky enough to have a computer or a smartphone, congratulations! You own the means of textual production. All of us writing for university have access to devices that allow us to produce text documents at little to no extra cost. Paragraphs are free – tuition is not.

       We discussed how the reverse was true of the medieval period in a few particular ways. During the middle-ages literacy was alive and well but not anywhere close to universal and what was recorded was dictated by the literate minority. In the past it was largely up to the elite, those who fought and prayed, to determine what was worth recording and, more importantly, conveying what was important to the working majority. One required the authority, wealth, and access to resources to determine what was recorded and saved. Today, all one requires is the ubiquitous smartphone.

The Good, The Bad, and The Smutty

       Who determines what is saved? What should be saved? The subjective questions are my favorite to explore. What makes a book valuable to one person or worthless to another and how does the medium factor?

       During our discussion someone brought up the volume of smutty erotica that exists and lamented the amount of time, space, and resources it took up. “They shouldn’t exist,” was the expressed conclusion. Being a contrarian by nature I joked about curating a library of smut. It was mildly amusing at the time, but it made me think about the personal nature of physical books. There was something deeply amusing in the image of a grand library of harlequin romances and Twilight fan fiction. When I imagine reading erotica out loud to an unsuspecting audience, I’m performing my best Gilbert Gottfried impression with a hot glue bound paperback in my hand. Why not an e-book?

       When it comes to contemporary book preservation, I think we should first reflect on how we curate the physical objects in our lives. If it isn’t purely functional, we keep objects that hold meaning or give us emotional satisfaction. We hold onto relics of our grandparents, parents and other ancestors or buy things that we connect with. I think that physical books retain this sort of value where digital books cannot. When we use things, books, tools, toys, and the like we imprint upon them. Wear, tear, and damage give objects an anthropomorphic character – physical things can become an extension of ourselves, and keepsakes can connect us to the past emotionally. An old book can be sentimental or compelling simply because it is old and esoteric. If it’s esoteric, taboo, or explicit – if it’s something that means something – keep it under the pillow or up in the attic and not on a hard drive – heaven forbid. The bottom line is, we should be grateful to be literate and free enough to choose what is important in our own lives.

T(ablet)-1001: Judgement Day

       As a parent a particular point brought up in the classroom struck a chord with me. Social learning is being, at least in part, supplanted by digital media. My kids have had more stories read to them by machines than live human beings (a trend I’ve actively worked on reversing over the last few weeks). My oldest son learned the alphabet almost entirely from computers and online videos. For some reason this concerns me, but that may be a manifestation of my own anxiety living through this liminal phase of textual culture. I have vivid memories of my parents and phonics flash cards mixed with feeling of both frustration and accomplishment. The thought of my children missing that experience is a little melancholy.

       What of the medieval perspective? What would a scribe think of the copy paste function? Would he resent the simplicity, or would he envy the convenience? Would he be too amazed by the notion of self illuminated OLED displays to care?

       What did I learn? Upon reflection I learned that I rely on digital text far more than I knew I did. Digital text and electronic books are pervasive and inescapable. However, I don’t think the physical book is about to disappear. As long as human beings have emotional needs, I think physical books will remain tucked away on shelves and in desk drawers … and occasionally hidden in basements and under baseboards.