Robotic Reading

This week I’m heading up to the far north-west of the country, Ullapool specifically, for their superb and bijou book festival. It means, incidentally, I get to spent election night at the Ceilidh Place which has the potential to be one of the most memorable evenings of my life. In preparation, I have only one novel to read for chairing duties – James Robertson’s As The Land Lay Still, due to be published in August. As it’s quite in advance, I have to read a digital version (and it’s a whopper of a novel, at nearly 700 pages). It will be the longest book I’ve read in non-paper form, and the experience is making me think a great deal about reading digitally.

First and foremost, I’ve always been sceptical about e-reading. I think part of my resistance is that reading e-texts means reading in a non-codex form. You scroll a text, just as you would have done were you reading in the Alexandrian Library with Caesar’s trireme berthed outside. (My bodged solution at the moment is to have two pages up simultaneously on the pdf reader). But it still goes against nearly forty years of how I’ve read. The eye doesn’t move like a laser-printer producing a text when you read. It roves, circles, doubles-back; and if you’re reading a novel, even more so: you skip back whole pages sometimes, a singularly difficult thing to do with e-texts. Also, when we’re reading, we’re not sounding      out        each      word     in     turn. The text on the page is mirrored by a mental construct of hypothetical grammars. We scan to find the verb, hold a version of the sentence in suspension while waiting to discover the subject, gobble down strings of adjectives to mull later. When I’m reading in absolutely top gear, it’s almost like reading whole pages the way we naturally read whole sentences. How this will play out over such an extensive work in this form, I’ve no idea.

Anyway, I’ll be chairing Andrew Greig, Kevin McNeil and James Robertson; attending almost everything else, and trying to avoid dead gannets.  The rest of this week’s reading has been non-fiction: a new book on the historical novel that made me purse my lips and raise my eyebrow over its naivety concerning Scott; Zizek’s brilliant “Living In The End Times” (giddying clever, superbly provocative: he’s the only philosopher who can segue from Lacan to Lenin to Lost); the memoirs of Christopher Hitchens and a new study of neoliberalism in Scotland. None of them, thankfully “ctrl-f-able”.

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