Fiction begs the question of itself, as does reading. The recent debates about the future of reading and so on seem to have thrown us back to some zero-point where we could begin to consider what reading might be, and therefore who the reader is and what she might be doing when she reads. And of course, given their interdependence, the same thing might be wondered about the writer. All of a sudden we have to question where we are when we read and what we are doing when we write. What is obvious in these debates and forums on reading is how little we seem to have thought about what reading is.
For example, why are narratives not just a series of events? Why isn’t that just what we have? Why isn’t the world composed of such narratives?
You tell stories that are not true, said Michael Wood, because the stories that are true aren’t enough. In other words – and we obviously need a lot of other words in order to find out what the true stories aren’t telling us – perhaps we are in an intermediate space when we read, a transitional space and our use of reading is a way of haunting that space, of occupying our own interior state in a way that also impinges on the interior states of others across time and space. As Adam Phillips remarks in an extended interview, ‘I look into the book and the book looks into me’.
Books don’t have any agency in the way that the reader does, but books have the capacity to change each of us differently because each book is read differently and can only be read differently, and no-one owns a master narrative. The transitional space of reading – which is in-between a whole lot of things not just covers – is transitional because it allows a kind of structural change to happen, where we can be surprised by what we haven’t thought, or by what we have thought but couldn’t look at or understand. In fact we may well also use reading to avoid that space as much as navigate it. And if we avoid it – as I do when I read certain kinds of fiction that I call ‘bathtub-books’ – we prevent the possibility of transformation, preferring instead a kind of rigid homeostasis, a narcissistic identification with an idea of what we think we’ll find in the book.
It’s not hard to come up with a million ideas of what fiction might look like in the near future, a future supposedly flagged by the Kindle and the iPad. It would be a kind of cyber–fiction perhaps, like Blade Runner, but with reading. What if the novel I wrote were written in fragments and each download was compiled differently so that that there was no definitive edition? What if fifty percent of the novel was a console game, and each choice you made in the game closed off other choices irrevocably? And when the game was completed, you were able to then download the remainder of the novel as text; a text based on the choices you made in the game? What if you downloaded a novel, concerned say with the complicated life of two blogger-lovers and so on, and then a year later were electronically delivered a different edition with the claim that the first edition you bought was false and that the true story was contained in the new download? And what if this happened every year for an indeterminate period?
The first thing that strikes you when you start using a Kindle is: readers didn’t design it. It was obviously designed by people who think reading is about picking up a book-object and turning pages. Basically, the technology for delivering books is still crap, it’s just finally moved into the ‘useable’ stage. At last, I can download a large text document and read it on a handheld device. It’s hardly Gutenberg’s Press all over again. Similarly, with the iPad, what Apple thinks we should do with it, is very different to what it might be possible to do with it.
Multimedia devices like the iPad and the Kindle are designed as platforms for the delivery of products for us to buy. Nothing else. Apple and Amazon have very limited and rigid ideas on how their technology should be used and who should use them. The potential of these portable technologies is always limited by the corporation’s desires, and the corporation desires that we become Apple- or Amazon-dependent.
Reading, in the limited sense of reading a book, which is how we are using it here, is intensely private and untraceable. Reading a Kindle is not, as the reader is in many ways dependent on Amazon’ s servers. As Guy Rundle pointed out a couple of Overlands ago, as far as governments are concerned – and corporations too we might add – the citizen has become ‘a subject whose inner condition becomes a matter for political action’.
For John Howard, that meant giving us all an ideological makeover and blurring the borderline of what a citizen could be subjected too, as in the case of Vivian Solon. For Kevin Rudd it means a government bereft of any kind of social vision engaging in an endless, annoying and intrusive tinkering and stuffing around with bureaucratic methodologies and turning them into grandiose national projects – home insulation, compulsory income management, internet filtering – all of which are incredibly cumbersome and strange and none of which work. But for both Howard and Rudd there has been a fixation on what we are allowed to do, on what we could be thinking, on what they don’t know about us, on getting inside each and every household. We could be up to anything – accessing strange websites, reading unusual books, having unplaceable and unnameable experiences.
And this is something of the crux of the matter for the reader. Not how many wacky narrative structures we can come up with, but where we are when we read; who we become and why and how we become; and whether we are transformed by reading’s reciprocity, by an exposure to the difference of difference and the inhabiting of the experience of the other in our imagination.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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