Rose Aitchison, an MA History of the Book student at the Institute of English Studies, explores the importance of touch in our interaction with the texts we read, from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.
“For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial […] thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”
“[O]ver the past decade digital technologies have been utterly transformed. […] it’s evident that [f]ar from prompting a loss in tactility, perhaps digital devices are reminding us of the importance of touch.”
The striking echoes between the former quote, which opens The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction published in 1935, and the latter, from a 2015 blog by Kerr Houston, serve to highlight the historical significance of the current juncture in accepted definitions of books and art at which we find ourselves.
Digital technology, which offers the possibility of displaying and reading books, is by no means a new phenomenon. However, its proliferation among the general population, increased portability, durability and decrease in cost over the last five years has fundamentally shifted how and what the majority of us read on a daily basis.
As Houston notes, much writing over the last decade or so on the subject of the haptic experience of digital texts has emphasised the losses sustained in this shift from page to pixels. While commuters may not now always turn the pages of a paperback on the bus, in 2014, the average smartphone user touched their phone 150 times a day. We can no longer ignore the reality of how the haptic experiences of a digital device define the texts which these devices display. It is important to shift our view of digital devices as a skeuomorph of a book and recognise them as a vehicle for a discrete and highly individualised haptic reading experience, with its own possibilities and limitations.
One such possibility fostered by emerging hardware capabilities was examined in a 2017 study at Northwestern University. It explored how parents and preschool children used tablets with haptic capabilities to read an illustrated story together. These tablets incorporated elements such as textured surfaces on illustrations, using haptic feedback technology similar to that of the home button of some iPhone models. The report concluded that:
“Parents used the haptic feedback as a way of discussing objects, actors, and actions that related to the story narrative. While prior work conceptualizes technology-related discussion as distracting to the child, thereby taxing their cognitive ability to comprehend the story narrative, we found that parents used this type of talk to make connections from what was happening in the illustrations to the overall story narrative.”
While it is self-explanatory that the inner workings of a tablet are beyond the comprehension of most toddlers, a glance at their bookshelves confirms the popularity of textured surfaces in picture books aimed at the very young. To the children in the Northwestern study, the haptic elements were a useful and interesting way of engaging with the book as an object as well as the story being told to them. When a child is too young to read a book, other than looking at illustrations, touch is the only sense they can use to engage with it.
Aristotle placed touch at the bottom of his hierarchy of senses, deeming it one of the most base, as it is also possessed by animals. Western culture and the Abrahamic faiths have often characterised touch between people as being an inherently sensual act (for example, negiah in Orthodox Judaism).
With this cultural backdrop, its consideration in scholarship surrounding interactions with texts can sometimes be somewhat lacking. An emphasis on the semantic information conveyed excludes the haptic element inherent in reading any text, and positions reading as a purely visual experience, in which the reader identifies the semantic meanings behind the marks before them.
Despite this, emerging digital humanities scholarship does acknowledge this haptic element. Dr Johanna Green, a codicologist at the University of Glasgow, grounds her practice in working with medieval manuscripts as follows: Medieval manuscripts were made to be handled: to be read, to be touched, to be annotated, even kissed.
Her Instagram account (@uofgcodicologist) has almost 6,000 followers, to whom she posts regular pictures and videos of herself handling medieval texts. She says of her deliberate inclusion of her own hands in these posts that:
“Both visible and inferred, these curatorial hands and fingers serve to connect the audience to the object in a more haptic and engaged manner that is currently possible via a digital manuscript viewer. The manuscripts are no longer disembodied by the digital skin they wear, but are enlivened by the hands that manipulate them for the Instagram audience.”
Dr Green acknowledges her rarity as a person able to regularly handle such texts. She points out that those studying such texts will often only be able to view them through websites such as that of the British Library, which inherently flatten the presence of the book and of the hands which hold it (whether your own or those of the librarian).
She refers also to John Berger’s famous quote from Ways of Seeing about how the image of an artwork being transmitted onto a television screen recontextualises the image for each viewer within the frame of their own television and their own living room. By reframing her posts within the context of the viewer’s smartphone, and where they view it, informs their interpretation of the material. She also points out that her followers often haptically engage with these Instagram posts: as well as holding their own phone in their hand, they might double tap the image to ‘like’ it.
As Green notes, the image of these ‘curatorial hands’ serve to remind her audience of the physical existence of the object being photographed, and the importance of its physiognomy to a full understanding of the text as an object with semantic meaning which can be read using smell and touch as well as sight. A fascinating project which also explores these ‘curatorial hands’ is The Art of Google Books, a blog (and printed book) which documents ‘mistakes’ made in the digitisation of texts. These typically include pages warped by scanners, annotations and repairs, and the hands of librarians holding the books, often wearing ‘finger condoms’ (see below: ‘Employee’s Hands’, theartofgooglebooks.tumblr.com).
We can conclude that touch is an important aspect of our interaction with the texts we read, at all ages and levels of literacy. The consideration of touch in academic discourse about changing ways of reading is being reignited by creative practice, from within and without academia. This emphasises its importance in the reading process, and the opportunities for new ‘books’ to use innovative hardware and software to shape the information they contain, and the reader’s experience.
Rose Aitchison is currently studying for an MA in the History of the Book at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her interests include textual and digital materiality and embodiment, and the role texts play in historical moments of liberation and oppression.
Cover image: Wikimedia Commons