“Nothing Stirs Me More”: Digital Technology and the Romance of Books
Mashable has a short little story up about the keyboard cases the Touch Microsoft debuted alongside its new Surface tablets. Even more than the ooh, interesting general considerations, something really stood out to me. Mashable’s Emily Price writes:
“Nothing stirs me more than Touch Cover.” Panos Panay, a designer for Microsoft said while showing off the Touch Cover at the event. “This spine feels like a book. You’ll hold it like a book. It will feel like it’s another book when you carry it with books.”
Panay doesn’t say that it will “feel[ ] like a” laptop, in addition to functioning more like one. It’s such a seemingly strange assurance—that this thing which is most certainly not a book will nonetheless feel like one. And this isn’t a pitch for a Kindle or a Nook or anything that claims to simply (ha!) take the place of the codex. (Indeed, and strikingly, he suggests it won’t do so and that you’ll actually carry the Surface along with books as you go about your day.)
Yet the book remains a touchstone for comfort, familiarity, and perhaps for love. Or, at least, an odd sort of lust.
Indeed, that bit—“Nothing stirs me more than the Touch Cover,” which “feels like a book”—really struck me. My currently-mostly-imaginary second book project will examine the ways that romance and sexuality have been used to frame the various relationships that grow up around books (between authors and readers, between authors and publishers, between readers and other readers, between readers and books) since mechanical reproduction met a burgeoning consumer culture in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Think from Whitman’s erotic relationship with his readers throughYou’ve Got Mailand the romance of big-box bookselling to nostalgia for the book’s sensuality in the digital age.
It was this last aspect, this longing for the feel of page or leather on skin, that Panay’s comments brought to mind. And, in particular, it reminded me of a favorite passage from Michael Camille’s “Sensations on the Page,” about digital reproduction and medieval manuscripts. Camille describes the distance between reading a manuscript on a page and encountering it in person, framing this gap in purposefully and intriguingly sexual (not simply sensual) language:
[T]he act of reading for the literate person was a libidinal experience, of penetrating the bound volume, that dangerously ductile opening and shutting thing. … At this period…one entered most books from behind. … The way medieval books were bound with thongs between stamped leather or wooden boards, held shut with metal studs, encased in hide belts, and snapped shut with buckle-like clasps made them into clunky and physically intimidating objects, attractive to modern fetishists. The book has today lost much of these corporeal, communicative, and erotic associations. The medieval book was activated constantly, however, by the speaking, sucking mouth, the gesturing, probing hand, and the opening, closing body. Reading a text was a charged somatic experience in which every turn of the page was sensational, from the feel of the flesh and hair side of the parchment on one’s fingertips to the lubricious labial mouthing of the written words with one’s tongue.
Sex and love frame here, as they so often have, a moment (or in this case an epoch) of change in the form and feeling of books.
And Panay follows along similar lines. Even announcing a new technology, he is still tied up in the romance of books, remembering them as tactile, “stir[ring]” things and projecting that excitement onto something else.
[Photo from engadget]