One of the recurrent human fantasies in regards to reading is that of reading books simply by touching or looking at them. In Mircea Eliade’s ‘Youth without Youth’, the transhuman patient simply touches a book and ‘absorbs’ it. Falling asleep with a book in our lap might open a channel for one-way data transfer. Latter-day techno-utopias have replaced the magical element in these fantasies with technological fantasies of their own: a device, implant or other biotech contraption allowing us to bypass the arduous, time-consuming reading process. Uploading a book unto our mind.
The keyword here is process. But reading is not a process. It is an experience. And biotechnological myth-making has not broached the phenomenology of reading yet – at least not in ways which don’t involve simulacra, illusional and delusional ways of representing reality.
Reading is an experience, which means that it unwrapps itself in time, within the folds of our time-consciousness. Which leads to the idea that reading is not merely an experience, but an adventure, whether we’re reading fiction, non-fiction or anything in between.
An adventure is an experience of ad-venture. Of things to come. Of coming to new things. Of unexpected encounters. Reading is the experience of meeting the unknown. A book is a drive down a rugged road where every turn has the capacity to throw the whole drive into disarray, but also to bring new roads, new turns, new drives. You won’t know what lies around the corner until you’ve turned around the corner. The ad-vent of any reading experience is the unknown, the unexpected encounter with the unexpected, a form of faith and of awe. Technology has no purchase on this. Not yet at least. What it does is to propose a mechanical model of data gathering, processing and storage – the interpretation is left out because a machine is hermeneutically impotent.
That’s where our imagination comes in. We’ve been led by science and technology to reduce our human activities to the smallest common denominator we share with intelligent machines. We’ve made machines in the ikon of ourselves, now we interpret and mirror ourselves in the ikon of the machine. And reading is no exception. Machines can read so perhaps we could read like machines do – fast, accurate and effortless – at least as long as there is energy to spare. It doesn’t matter that machines can’t read at all.
The experience of reading is irreducible to any mechanical process. We think it can be because we think of reading and memory in ways that a computer reads and stores information. This model is great, but neglects the fact that reading is transformative and interpretive.
Reading is in act of information processing in the light of concomitant human interpretation and emotional refraction. It is personal and irreplaceable. It is generative and situated. It is generative of other experiences and acts of will (some reading leads to action); it is situated in the sense that we read a book from the standpoint of our own situation, and no-one else’s. That’s why ‘I’ve already read this book, I don’t need to read it again’ is nonsense. It’s almost like saying ‘I’ve been on an adventure, I need not go on another’.