THE FUTURE OF READING
Reading Reality into Fiction
When I think of the future of reading I think of the past, I think of Walter Benjamin or Peter Mandelsund. I think of book covers and how we were always told: don’t judge a book by its cover. But then came a time when books didn’t have covers; then came a time when books were nothing but covers; then came a time, Mallarmé’s time, when everything was in a book and the world itself, that yokel of metaphysics, was its cover. The years came and went, 2008, 2016, 2024. And still, here we are, obdurate, existing ever more. It is funny to think people thought the book was over. People also thought the Internet was over! It hasn’t died, I mean to say: neither books nor the Internet have died. Because the Internet is everywhere.i Books are one step even further because we read in our sleep and your image is read after you die. Have I said this yet: the world is between the covers of a book.
For my part, I have become Riba. The jovial, somewhat sad, publisher of Enrique Vila-Matas.ii Which is the same as saying I have become Vila-Matas for all the characters of Vila-Matas are Vila-Matas, they are the cover between him and the world. I say this thinking of how he explored the ways art could be brought to life, how he could outsmart the disorder of this mess we call life and run rings around Sophie Calle and read the story he wrote – reading and living are the same here – through gestures and speech-acts.iii But of course, that’s the worst thing one can do when reading: get the author confused with their creations.
Union Square Café
The great age of literary publishing is over and it was declared over in the toilet of Union Square Café sometime during what the Americans call the Festive Season in the year 2006, uttered wordlessly by a publisher that shall go unnamed here – and besides someone I’ve never even met – but who had a lot to lose in the war being waged against author, agent, Bezos, bookseller – and reader. ‘It’s over’ he mouthed as he stared at his reflection, his eyes quietly aflutter, cocaine rushing through his bloodstream, a martini, perhaps his last for a while, slowly gathering moisture along the rim of the glass, awaiting him at the bar. A reader of dry martinis, a good alcoholic. Like Riba. And like me? I am other. The good reader must have a good memory, at least a good selective memory and so I have cultivated mine through abstinence and gingko biloba.
This was over twenty years ago lest we forget and the older one gets the harder it is to rely on memory. How old I’ve gotten too! A surprise certainly, while I may not have the trouble of Riba or his inventor Vila-Matas, I’ve imbibed my fair share of wines it is true. Then all those days of lethargy, how they added up to become one large what-could-have-been, the saddest words a man could ever utter, or so said the wise Boethius. So my unpublished library remains open to interpretation – all those books I could have written, could have edited, could have read. This is what I think when I think of Benjamin and his ‘interpreters of fate’, not only have I collected, I have read. It takes a poet to articulate this accurately:
‘I am unpacking my library, yes I am.
No books this time, though. Just their idea, its progress. Each thought out of its box, like an email out of the other (not like that at all). Or a book: its memory. All six sides of it. Like an object, like some furniture, or what it furnishes us with: desire. That arrangement of flowers. That infinity pool of the computer.
The desire of a library; the desire for a library: two different things. Both, however, can lead one to the cerulean literary harbours where swim the fringe forms, the booklike creations, their bookish creators, schools of floral fish like fringe, like kelp waving in the water. Hey. Watch them float past, their lucid, fluid, petal-like paces through the blue. (Stop thinking about screens, about swiping, scanning, stroking; think about water, its literature.) In these literary port cities, with their transgressive profiles of water, so swims past these fluorescent, transgressive schools: libraries without books, literature without writing, writing without text, collecting without reading, publishing without literature, books without book-like form. Luminescent, literary fringe. No dust.’ iv
And this is where we got to, this dust free future where reading shares the stage with the implied literary imagination of projection, forecasting, anticipation – all bred from a sense memory of what reality may be: we live the life we’ve written for ourselves. Writing without text. Books without book-like form. I think I once tried to write this text, many years ago, in the face of the deep ill ease we all felt then, not of the break up of the politic order or the demise of the ecological habitats we’ve ruined for our descendants, but for the ability to read works of art as they had been handed down to us, as one medium was replaced by another, we couldn’t recognize the experience of reading the world in a shared way that gave pleasure to our moral sense of place within it. We transgressed our limits of attention, and felt desperately at fault for doing so.
The Map and the Territory
Plato hated that the written word could take precedence over oral communication – only in speech encounters could we be sure that our audience (our reader?) could properly receive our message.v But then of course communication itself took precedence over the written word. The map collapsed into the territory, we were told reality itself was fading away. The land became a text. And in that time when we joked as we Facetimed for the first time, or entered a café in Manhattan using Google street view, the text was magic, it was technology: language was an event properly told, not a medium, books refound what they had always the potential to be: physical spaces removed and floating heavily in the stream of ethereal information, weighed down with hallmarks, notchsticks, tatty pages and broken spines, a reassuring weight in the reader’s hands.
Was the literary novel killed by the wording in a sub-prime mortgage contract? The intricacies of a bank bailout in any one country that affected the lives of countless others in some other neighbouring country? Was it killed by the unknown desperation that forced a mother and father to uproot their children and walk, tramp, run, swim across borders to avoid trauma, danger, death? Was it killed by the image and videos of police breaking up a teenage pool party, racially profiling the attendees before brutally assaulting a terrified teenage girl in her bikini and pinning her to the ground as if she, and she alone, threatened the world order? The exact date is hard to say (gosh, how sad I am right now) the exact date is impossible to say because it is the date when reading became hard to do in the face of the conspiracy of attention spread over the requisite amounts of time needed to unfurl these disgustingly complex narratives. History, long form, LOL Plato.
When I was growing up during the impressionable age books came at me haphazardly and yet I gave them unwarranted attention and read them right the way through, and what is more, I became them for the duration of reading them. A slow becoming, character formation in the time it took me to grow the strength needed to get through the pages. I wish there were a name for this, a word to describe the process.
The Decline and Fall of an Industry Standard
I remember meeting Nate Forbes for the first time. He wanted to talk about the end of journalism and we got pretty drunk while he outlined the closures of several newspapers, including The Independent, where he first started out. I think it’s safe to say that Forbes was somewhat obsessed about it and I guess I told him one or two things about how publishing, as it operated in the past, was also undergoing a serious transformation, something that didn’t threaten it terminally, but more that it had the potential to survive without the publisher. Journalism, he added, without the journalist, is mere opinion.
I always thought Nate would never write a book – but when it did it astounded me. I read it in one sitting through the night. I had never even heard of Eduardo Rósze Flores! Sadly I never found out exactly why he chose me to publish the book. At least not the real reason. He said it was because I knew that my profession was in decline, much like his was, something I didn’t bother to contradict but quietly now wish I had. He also said he admired how we called ourselves a European publishing house.
But then came A Burning Atlas. Yeah, Forbes didn’t like this but that doesn’t matter, we had been building up to this book for years. I can see why some people are upset by the idea of a non-human poetry, but I’m also surprised: the lengthy debates that surrounded English as a second language literature had already changed how people saw writing – and language – and how in the new age of internationalized cultural agency was bred from a shared platform, an online platform we were all busy making every day.
This brings me to think of my first meeting with Djordje Bjojic and how different he was to an author like Nate Forbes: sad and truculent, I met Bojic sometime just before dawn in a Paris of faded dreams. This was beyond post-modern times, it was non-time somehow and the man was about to go and die. But he died knowing that the world was ending, and of course he was right. That’s the strangest thing about the future of reading: it’s most important aspect is our disability to read our own habitats. But that’s what we get for hubris.
If Countries Were People
Attention deficit therapy and concentrated reading groups shouldn’t surprise us: the heated conversation around reading today is no less intense than every generation has enjoyed with each new experience of mapping the territory. It’s our minds that shape the reality our devices transmit to us, this is what we shouldn’t forget and books and reading books are too elegant to let anybody forget that.
What Was It I Was Reading?
Publishing, like collecting books in a library, like choosing books to read, reading books to conclusion(s), is, as Roberto Calasso so assiduously put it, an art in itself and the publisher’s backlist is a form unto itself, indeed a literary work that is an interlinked chain which is a ‘self-sufficient composition’. This I savior: the vision of a self-sufficiency in a composition that can almost be felt physically, touched and played upon with slight variations over time or depending to the fall of light.
Jan Karan’s Eastfear
‘The states that language generate are similar to the states that objects in a space generate, real, if ephermeral, yet no less true – indeed, perhaps more true – for being so. Such states, like nation-states themselves, are not merely the consequences of speech-acts, they are intrinsically performative.’ vi
To End Before You Begin
i. It was Hito Steyerl who made us all aware of the offline life of the Internet back in 2013. ‘The internet is probably not dead. It has rather gone all-out. Or more precisely: it is all over!’ Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead? e-flux journal no. 49, November 2013.
ii. ‘He has a remarkable tendency to read his life as a literary text, interpreting it with the distoritions befitting the compulsive reader he’s been for so many years. He lives in an anxious state of powerful, end-of-everything psychosis. Nothing, and no one, has yet convinced him that getting old has its good points. Does it?’
iii. ‘I’ll take the necessary steps toward bringing the story with Sophie Calle to life, which I’ve been contriving and writing down. In other words, if Don Quixote is about a dreamer who dares to become his own dream, my story would be that of the writer who dares to bring what he has written to life, specifically, in this case, what he’s invented about his relationship with Sophie Calle, his favourite “narrative artist”.’ Because She Never Asked, p. 70.
iv. Quinn Latimer, ‘Best Book Don’t Care or, Poor Form from Fringe Areas’, Back Door Books, Rotterdam, 2014.
v. Socrates: Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself. (Plato, Phaedrus, 275d.)
vi. Lou Cantor, ‘Prologue’ in Intersubjectivities: Volume 1, Sternberg Press, 2016
John Holton is a novelist, artist and publisher. His first two novels, The Readymades and Oslo, Norway were both published by Broken Dimanche Press, which he co-runs. He lives in Berlin.