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Reading Mont Blanc

There are a couple of reasons that writing has migrated toward the screen. The biggest reason is that it's cheaper. The production process migrated to the screen, and in the end, it seemed easier to skip the part where you turn digital files into plates, smear ink on them, and print the offset onto paper. Once lots of people had screens that could serve as readers, the economics of it gained traction.

The same thing happened in movies and television, photography, and music. The consumption device is just a simpler version of the machines, or set of machines, used to produce the work.

The flexibility and agility provided by digital production methods hasn't really translated into the artwork. There are a few experimental attempts, but nothing has broken through into the mass market. A few people are working on computational narrative outside of the video game context. Generative music has also been available at your local app store for a while.

These kind of generative and computational works take the form of software applications. Computing power and algorithms are a necessary element of the product. They sit in a kind of no man's land between traditional media and video games. For the most part, the digital publication has simply been a cheaper form of print. As the hypertext medium matures, we'll need to see something more than “cheap.” Eventually, the audience won't be impressed with “free” or “cheap.” Libraries are filled with “free” books, but it's not on that basis that a reader checks out a book.

I started down this train of thought because of a book I checked out of San Francisco's Mechanic's Library. It's a membership library located downtown. If you like chess, it houses a beautiful chess room. Motivated by reading Tim Morton's review in the “LA Review of Books” of Steven Shaviro's “The Universe of Things,” I became interested in reading the poem that resonates so strongly with the title of Shaviro's book.

The poem is called “Mont Blanc” and was written in 1816 by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poem is available online through a number of sources. I own several volumes of Shelley's work that contain the poem. Whenever I'm in a used book store I look for unfamiliar editions of poetry by William Blake and Percy Shelley. While their poetry is widely available, most of the editions are not very readable–tiny type, horrible layout.

Book publishers still working with ink and paper have also succumbed to the trend of producing the cheapest product possible. And when it comes to so-called classics, the worst tendencies of cheapness converge. It's as though the publisher cynically believes that it's enough to say one owns the complete works of Shakespeare in a single volume. Of course, no one would waste their time actually reading the plays; so why bother making them a pleasure to read?

You've probably seen these kinds of books. Their unapproachability has nothing to do with their status as “high art.” It's just that the type is too small. They're technically readable, in that, all the words have been converted to ink on paper. This is perhaps where the saying “machine readable” comes from.

Back to the poem. I'd been reading Shelley's “Mont Blanc” every evening for several weeks. I find that I need to read a poem a number of times over an extended period before it begins to function as a poem. I'd been switching off between various books that contained the poem. And then recently, I happened to be in the Mechanic's Library looking for something else, and thought I should find out if they had a nice edition of Shelley's poetry.

When I got to the designated shelf, I recognized the dark green seven volume, hard bound set of “The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley.” For some reason I'd always resisted it. I think I'd had a previous bad experience with an old edition of Coleridge's poems. Completely unreadable. I pulled down a volume and started paging through it. What a revelation.

This edition was published by Virtue & Company out of Boston in 1909. It's the library edition, and bears the number, 141 out of 1000. It has beautiful illustrations, and was edited by Nathan Haskell Dole. The volumes are simple, durable and luxurious.

Reading “Mont Blanc” in this beautiful edition, with excellent typography and a generous layout, was a qualitatively different experience. The poem has technically been printed in many books. All the words are there, and the lineation is correct, but not every printing of the poem actually does service to both the poem and the reader. The quality of the ink and the paper has something to do with it, but one also has the sense the publishers have a real understanding of what they're committing to paper. It's as though they knew in advance what it would be like to read these poems in this particular configuration.

Due to financial constraints, much of print publishing has lost its sense of usability. There are, of course, some notable exceptions. Web design has gone through the opposite problem. The “usability” profession killed design in the production of web sites. Some good principles were unearthed, but the usability specialists over-played their hand. We're only starting to see web sites (if there still is such a thing as a “web site”) wriggle out from under the boot of usability.

Reading the poem “Mont Blanc” online isn't a particularly pleasurable experience. The screen, and the vast network of interconnected pages behind it, seem to work against the flow of the poem. Rather than open the reader to the experience of the natural world flowing through the senses, as though one were a kind of Aeolian harp; the hypertext screen radiates the opposite polarity, and entices the reader to flow her attention through the connecting paths of the Network.

While it is true that the cost of publishing the written word will always be cheaper in some digital format, the value of the work in many cases is diminished. In the last year, a few online publications have started to break the mold and create more reader-friendly screen publications. Perhaps as we read more and more online, we'll begin to realize the absolute poverty of the reading experience. It's not very good. When the economics of publication, whether for print or screen, tells us that we can't afford to do good work–that's when the whole thing really starts to fall apart. We've been facinated with the idea of commodity prices approaching zero. What we're learning (again) is that value tends to follow price as it moves toward zero.

Where is that revaluation of digital values that we've been waiting for?

 

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