So The Speculative Turn is now readable online as a PDF on re.press’s website. I cannot fault the logistical reasons why Open Access PDF’s are gaining popularity, so they should. I could never understand anyone who would wish to anti-democratise academic publication by making work expensive, hard to read or password-segregated.
But heres the thing – I cannot abide reading scholarly work on a computer screen. This can never be possible for me, it might be for others and let me know if you are in any way different or if it fails to bother you. However for me, the act of reading a whole book online seems to be one of general annoyance both in the material constraints and the contextual circumstance. Blog posts don’t have this problem obviously, but then, they aren’t usually sustained arguments and therefore are not usually as dense. If a blog post is over the 2000 word mark, then I usually become ‘optically-tired’ as when I try to read an open access PDF.
The act of reading a open access version (and crucially it must be viewed as a version) is a problem on a computer. And the worst thing is, I can’t put my finger on why it should be the case that reading a PDF is the worse option. Maybe it is the lack of of having something material available at hand; of having something tangible to hold, pencil mark, notify and intentionally dog-ear. I don’t want to solely criticise it on the lack of materiality, like some sort of naturalistic moron, but I find that reading dense passages (especially philosophical ones) requires far more concentration online that reading an actual paper-based publication. My concentration wains after a few minutes, and I fail even to make the basic connections in the same chapter, let alone a sustained argument during 200 – 300 pages. Whereas on paper, I can flick between pages from either end of the book in reference to previous notes with ease and I can comfortably read from anywhere I choose (as is often the case with one of Zizek’s eclectic offerings for example).
Zooming in and out fails to address the situation. Whether its the customary position that a user takes between screen, keyboard, mouse and chair, there is no single ‘good’ way of reading a PDF online, period. Theres probably something phenomenological about this that Merleau-Ponty would pick up on. With a printed text, we always know how to adjust the publication to read it in just the right way, despite the usually less than ideal contexts we find ourselves in. We move to find more light, less light, hold the publication in the right way, etc. No amount of adjusting can create the ideal situation when reading online – I’m even tempted to suggest that there isn’t one.
And so you think, ‘well just print it out then’. Translating one version into a material paper based version is obviously better from the standpoint of marking pages. But now you just pine for a binding machine. The additional problem here is that unbound pages have a tendency to get mixed up and destroyed. (I actually did this with Graham Harman’s Prince of Networks; I printed out hundreds of pages on duplex. After a number of weeks, the whole whack of papers became unreadable, dirty, dog-eared – [in the accidental sense this time], lost pages, etc.) The physical bound book won out, and won my money.
Then there is context. It does not matter where you try to read Open Access Publications, it is still strangely rubbish. Interesting, for me, this occurs no matter what platform I read it on; laptop, iPad, desktop etc., it is always far from ideal. The interaction between eye and simulated word is still a challenging exercise and even worse if you are easily distracted. I also feel horribly annoyed by the constraint of battery life on mobile electronic platforms, which distracts me even more. Distribution does not provide the equality of concentration, but the constraint of simulated print.
More and more, I find that the basic element of reading scholarly works is absorption. And for Open Access Publications, absorption is an element of scholarship sorely lacking. Actually, I’m tempted to suggest the same for viewing simulated artworks online (unless the artwork is deliberately constructed to work in the confines of the web).
Interestingly, a couple of weeks away from the Public Interface conference in Aarhus, they have kindly posted a whole printed and bounded reader of important texts, ready for the conference. Now this is more likely to get me up to speed on the conference than a host of URLs, that I cannot concentrate on.