Great American Novel (physical vs. digital)

Let’s reflect upon the relation between the Great American Novel and its physical properties.  As I’ve said throughout the semester, Moby-Dick is a whale of a book.  Melville remains keenly aware of its dimensions and uses puns to comment on the scale of his ambition, and the magnitude of the themes addresses.  For the first time ever, this semester I read a commercial (rather than scholarly) edition of the book–an edition from 1930 (published during the “Melville Revival”).  It includes drawings from the artist Rockwell Kent.  Have a look at the link at the bottom of my post for pics.  For me, this created an experience unlike any I’ve had before.  I was reading a book that had a historical appearance and importance in reviving the study of the book.  This was a new kind of “physical.”  In all cases, one has a long-term relationship with Moby-Dick.  One does not consume it in one sitting, but as a long meal.

So, I’d like you to think more generally about the relation between the physical books you’ve been reading for this class (Moby-Dick and/or the one you are currently reading for your separate paper).  Question: In what ways is the art of that Great American Novel linked to the physicality of the book?  Is there a real difference between text as data on a screen with a scroll-down function, and text that is carved into place as words on a tangible page?  What happens to page counts and how do they impact the reader differently depending on the interface?  Does the difference matter?  Can digital texts still be “monumental”?  “Maximalist,” as their authors intended them to be?

As children of the digital age, you’ve thought about these questions.  Some worry about this; some don’t.  What I am asking for here is a consideration of how this applies to the Great American Novel (the ones we’ve read precede the digital era).  Perhaps a good analogy here is a rock album, like Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” cut in 1973 (smack in the middle of the LP vinyl era).  It’s got two sides and a story-telling/thematic sequence in place for the listener to process the music in the grooves, with certain pauses in place.  Then it’s digitized in 2000.  Same thing?

Please reflect on this question in 100 words.  Your blog posts are due this Thursday by 3:30 pm.

Rockwell Kent’s drawings for Moby-Dick, or The Whale

15 thoughts on “Great American Novel (physical vs. digital)

  1. I will be completely honest and say I read a digital copy of Moby Dick. I will also say I vastly prefer physical books, when I am able to read them. However, in the past few years I’ve found it harder and harder to sit down with a book and read for a long period of time without losing focus. Whether that is due to my ADHD, or simply my upbringing in this digital age, I can’t really know. But I do know that buying books through the Kindle app has helped me a lot in actually finishing books without resorting to simply using SparkNotes. I can pull the book up whenever; in the bathroom, in bed before I fall asleep, in the classroom before my professor arrives, on my laptop to read as a break between assignments. I understand that in most of these scenarios, I could just have a physical copy of the book on hand to read. In fact, I would agree that reading a book like Moby Dick digitally diminishes the experience somewhat. In a way I can’t explain, words do feel grander when inked onto a page. A digital book doesn’t become worn the more times you read it, doesn’t ever show signs of age or having been loved. Writing notes on the Kindle interface is a much less personal experience compared to writing pencil notes on the page of a physical book. But I don’t know that I would have finished Moby Dick if I hadn’t been reading it digitally. 50% of my reading time was spent in bathrooms, or in bed at 1 AM while my roommate was asleep, because for some reason those are the times I am most able to focus. Whether or not convenience or grandiosity is more important to a reader is, I think, something that can only be judged on an individual, case-by-case basis, but I find that the value in both mediums balances out.

  2. I’ve experienced reading in both forms, mostly physical book copies as that’s what I grew up with. On a technical standpoint, it is healthier than subjecting the eyes to a bright screen, though I can’t speak from experience. There is an allure to owning a physical copy, like walking into a room with shelves of books stacked in view. It shows a proud ownership. Plus, for more modern literature, it’s more convenient since books like Moby Dick have fallen into the public domain and can be easily copied onto a PDF. Modern books tend to not have that same luxury unless you purchase an eBook. Even then, disregarding price altogether, it feels nice to hold a physical book.
    However, I can’t deny the convenience of digital books since most people have some electronic device to access the internet. They’re compact and easy to transport, whereas books can take up space depending on how many you carry. I’m of course speaking from a college perspective, but easy access to online reading helps with refreshing yourself.
    The illustrations in the digital Moby Dick provides a whole new perspective of its world and paints a captivating image of the horrors unleashed. It adds to book, though one can’t deny the allure of imagining this world from their own perspective.
    Ownership of a physical book seems more personal than downloading a copy off the web. These days, I struggle to read mostly because I can’t get invested in something I’m required to compared to something I’m generally interested in. It pains me to say I need to find shortcuts sometimes when I’m falling behind, but sometimes it’s necessary. It’s hard to really define what makes a good book (though I refuse to read off my phone. It hurts my eyes to read off a compact screen). Digital usage is far more convenient in my eyes, but owning a physical book feels more personal in experience.

  3. In regards to the Great American Novel, I do think that having a physical copy of the book is immensely important to fully understand the gravity of the book, especially Moby Dick. I think the reader needs the accurate page count, cover art, and to hold the weight of the novel to really voyage through and appreciate the work. Addressing the simple question of electronic books or physical books, I prefer a physical copy of a book in most cases. Obviously when I was younger, I didn’t have access to digital copies of books as I didn’t even get a smartphone until I began high school. I think this is what drew me in to paper books. I used to love finishing a book and filling up all of the shelves on my bookcase in my room. Even now when I look at it, I get a feeling of nostalgia. I also loved writing my name into the covers of my books I would bring to school, it created a relationship with the book. However, in today’s day and age, an argument can be made for electronic readers simply in terms of convenience and flexibility of workspaces.

  4. When I was a little boy, I received many physical books as gift, most of them I still have to this day. Then I received an e-reader, which was much loved and used for many years. When I went to college and managed my own funding, I returned to physical books again. Through these transitions, I found that physical books have weight, not just in the physical sense but the metaphorical. An e-reader not only cracks and loses power, the words on it are reduced to drivel, pixels that could just as easily be a webpage about how many headshots some random YouTuber has in Call of Duty as a copy of, say, Paradise Lost. When I hold an actual book, I become protective, almost Gollum-ish, devoted to my precious and growing angry if something dares hurt it. E-readers, I try to protect them from injury, of course, as they are not easy to replace, but the emotion is not there. It is an object holding precious tidbits, not precious in and of itself. I read a book on an e-reader and go “great, I’m done.” I read a physical book and feel my heart drop when I shut the back cover with a sense of finality. I cannot loan an e-reader to my friends, but I can give them a book. I can write in a book, I cannot in an e-reader. I love the words on a page, I merely respect them on the screen.

    I suppose the difference between these formats to me, ultimately, is the difference between a frozen pizza and a handmade pizza. Both are good, but one is tolerable and the other is delicious. One is a casual meal, the other something to be savored. The same essence is in both, but only the homemade one satisfies my love for food. The frozen pizza merely sustains me. If, as Jefferson has said, some books are to be digested, I rather ingest fresh, vibrant ingredients made of ink and paper than the cold plastic of dead pixels on a screen,

  5. I definitely think that the art of really any book depends on its physicality. Holding a book as you read it and feeling how many pages you have left definitely changed the experience you have reading it. For GANs the formatting is a huge part of why its great, with format blending and intertextuality. Especially with Melville, there is a reason he uses footnotes and a play format and depending on how you are reading it this can be altered, therefore altering the experience. I think even the physical copy we are all reading from is slightly altering the experience from what Melville intended. That isn’t to say that digital texts can’t have substance, I think the reader just needs to be conscience that it alters what they are gaining from their reading of the novel.

  6. Kent’s graphic illustrations in the 1920s Art Deco style well-represented Melville’s textual description and my imagination. He especially captured Ahab’s face, a compelling, aging, charismatic leader, yet also a tyrant. The drawings draw the reader closer the story, creating a deeper connection to the characters.
    I appreciate a physical book versus a screen because I also use it as my notebook, summarizing each page’s main idea at the top and making comments in the margins. I am able to see the bookmarked end of an assignment which is a relief as I close in on completing that day’s reading. I think if I were to read it digitally, there would be no sense of the end. This idea of pacing and time is like training as a long-distance runner. When you run five miles the first time, you don’t know how to pace yourself to have a strong finish until you’ve run that distance a few times. Then, your internal clock and odometer improve and you gain a sense of how far you’ve gone and how much you have to go. When you get to that point, you can focus more deeply on the quality of the run. It’s the same for my close reading–the physical book helps me pace my reading to finish in time while staying deeply engaged.
    All this said, my available time makes a difference in my commitment to any reading. Moby Dick’s length made it very difficult to stay committed and in fact, I skimmed a few chapters because I had to get it done along with so many other demands on my time. In today’s world, I want the experience of Melville’s story, but feeling enslaved by it diminishes my experience, involvement and analysis. It could be the greatest novel ever, but if given a choice, I will find an enriching book that makes the point in less time. I have already chosen To Kill a Mockingbird over War and Peace.

  7. I do think that there is importance to the physicality of a book, or of any other work of art for that matter. It’s tough to get the full image and experience that the artist set out to create when you aren’t experiencing their work in the medium that it was created and intended to be viewed in. In the case of Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote it with the intention of having his work be understood and appreciated in a physical sense, and by taking that physical presence away through online versions or e-readers you do miss out on fully replicating the novel. There used to be a lot more talk about the death of the paper book, and there was this idea that digital alternatives would be the obvious preference for people. The fact that books are still dominant so many years after the kindle was introduced says a lot I think.

  8. I do believe that there is an inherent different experience gained from reading a physical book over an e-book or audiobook. Books are intended to be consumed in a physical manner and therefore authors will take advantage of that factor in formatting and the page count. However, I do believe that this does not make e-books and audiobooks inferior, they are just another means of consuming the same content. With novels like Moby Dick the physicality of the work may enhance the reading experience but consuming it in an alternative manner does not change the overall story. If that were the case then how would and individual account for the physical reading of an abridged version of Moby Dick? It may be a tangible thing for someone to hold but the “weight” of the story is actually removed in that case. Those who write in a digital age should be aware enough to make sure that the message they are sending through a piece is not lost among the formatting of the novel. I am not trying to negate the experience of reading a physical book, it’s the method I prefer and rarely deviate from, but I do believe that there is a benefit to be found in alternative reading methods for some people, they just provide a different reading experience.

  9. Physical books have an aspect to them that digital text doesn’t. Although I don’t think it needed to fully understand the novel, the ability to feel the book allows for a greater emersion into the story. With the physical book, you are able to put it down and pick it back up at any time with little to no inconvenience. Books have continued to be popular and I believe always will. People love things they can hold/touch, and digital copies don’t give that satisfaction. This satisfaction is what “The Great American Novel” tries to achieve and what the author was hoping for. To trigger emotion and connect with the reader. That is why it was (and I think is) so important that the novel is a book and not just some digital code amid endless other texts on the internet.

  10. I do believe that there is something lost in the digital age where massive works of art are minimized down to something we cannot physically see or hold. This effect is much more apparent in literature than anything else respectively. I do not think that the loss of physicality is felt in music because it is an auditory experience rather than physically having to see something in front of you to gain the experience. Whether it is played on vinyl or on iTunes you are still able to close your eyes and gain the full effect of the project. There may be a loss of some pauses which can easily recreated or the actual texture of sound of something played on a vinyl. I personally prefer physical books but am not bothered by the digitization of music. One way I am able to connect this experience to something else is driving. Driving, but more so driving spiritedly, with a manual sports car and a sports car with a dual clutch automatic transmission are two very different experience. Yes, the dual clutch is much much faster, but the connection and art of driving is lost. Watching a race car driver properly drive a manual transmission on a race track is quite beautiful because you have to be in control of the gears and the clutch and the syncros to have them all align for a smooth and fast drive. I think that this topic is essentially a matter of perspective and the appreciation for the “art of it”. Do I think that the digital world is a bad thing? No, but I do think that the appreciation for things has gone down.

  11. The art of the Great American Novel is wholly linked to the physicality of the book. I think that there is a more personal attachment not only between the reader and the physical book but also between the author and the words on the page. In modern times, these words are more often than not typed digitally and then printed, but back then, each word was written out; they were crafted by the author’s hand and by his/her own power brought into existence.
    I often find that my relationship to a text changes depending on whether I have a physical copy. If so, I’m more able to close read and take notes. I feel like I am reading a code left behind by the author, and only by intense study will I weed out their true intent. If the copy is digital, my mindset shifts. It becomes more of a game of highlighting keywords and phrases that I want to bring up in discussion. For the digital copy, Ctrl + F is the key that will solve all of my problems.
    I think in hindsight this is why I never wanted a Kindle/e-reader. I wanted to keep that close relationship with whatever book I was reading and retain the satisfying thud of shutting it when I was done.

  12. As an English major with a bad back, I decided it would be best to invest in an e-reader to cut down on the number of books I’d have to carry around every day. To quite a few English majors, reading on a tablet is kind of taboo, and I almost feel embarrassed to pull it out during some of my classes. Yet, having an electronic copy is kind of the coolest thing. It gives you the capabilities to search for your favorite quotes and define words or entire phrases right on the spot. However, just because I sing high praises for e-books doesn’t mean that I don’t still buy physical copies. I still have stacks of old books and anthologies lining my bedroom walls, as an English major should. While having an electronic copy is convenient in many ways, having the physical copy is in a way more honorable and it holds so much more magnitude. If you put your e-reader down on your coffee table, that means next to nothing. If you put your old, scribbled in, hard copies of “Moby-Dick”, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, and “The Scarlet Letter” on your coffee table, that’s impressive because it means something.

  13. I use an e-reader sometimes for personal reading or entertainment, but when it comes to reading for school, it’s always physical books. For me, the experience of writing annotations on a page is integral to how I interact with a text in an academic setting. I bring this up because I wonder if, in the same way that I associate physicality with active thought, physicality is associated by us with greatness, and with a book’s passive versus active status. We’ve talked before about the experience of reading Moby-Dick as a wrestling between reader and text, and a case could be made that the physical presence of the book is part of that book’s ability to engage in that struggle. In other words: I don’t think e-readers negates a ‘Great American Novel’, but I do think they change the experience, and I think ‘Great’ novels tie into our assumptions about physicality. The part of a Great American Novel involving a brazen declaration of its own existence can’t come across the same way without some level of physicality.

  14. I grew up in a family of book lovers. All of my family members have a “reading room” in their house with bookshelves lining the walls, filled with books. Because of this, I’ve always loved reading and having a physical book in my hands. As I got older and digital books became more popular, I got a kindle for my birthday and absolutely hated it. I tried to read several different books and could never do it because it just got boring for some reason. I like being able to flip through pages, see how far I’ve gotten and how many pages I have left. Although e-books are more convenient, I personally don’t think you can replace physical books.

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