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July 27, 2010, 2 p.m.

Uneven depths: Why the printed page has always had room for scholarly brilliance and dirty jokes

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He’s reading and reacting to Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be running Matthew’s ongoing twin review; here are parts one, two, three, four, five, and six. — Josh]

In a chapter called “The Deepening Page,” Nicholas Carr offers a swift and graceful account of the history of writing. He traces the rise of logic, coherence, and depth from magical formulae scratched on potsherds and wax tablets by the ancients, through the pious allusions of the middle ages to the graceful periodic sentences of the eighteenth century. Their prose represented not only a formal triumph, but a neural one as well. “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought,” writes Carr, “one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object.”

The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.

To Carr, the story of manuscript, printing, and publishing is the rise of the “deep page,” with modern literature as the apotheosis of literacy. The process a grimy Gutenberg started in the mid fifteenth century culminates in Wallace Stevens, whose poem “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” glories in the deep page: “The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind / The access of perfection to the page.”

The trouble is, it didn’t feel this way to many people going through these changes at various times in the past. Not to the manuscript bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, who condemned the coarsening presence of printed volumes in libraries devoted to books in manuscript; not to Pope Paul IV, who started the Index of Prohibited Books during the so-called “incunable era” following the advent of moveable type; not to Pope Urban VIII, who tangled with Galileo; not to Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope; not to the French monarchy in advance of the Revolution.

The printing press never only produced the kind of deep reading we admire and privilege today. It also produced propaganda and misinformation, penny dreadfuls and comic books offensive to public morality, pornography, self-help books, and much that was generally despised and rejected by polite culture. Any account of the history of “The Gutenberg Era” that lacks these is incomplete — just as any picture of the Internet that privileges LOLcats and 4chan is insufficient. We must consider both — for pornography, misinformation, and sheer foolishness have thrived from the age of incunables to the advent of the Internet. And the deep-reading brain evolved in the midst of it all.

In his report about ROFLCon in last week’s New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker argues that open culture needs the slipshod, the shifty, and the shallow in order to maintain its health.

The more traditional pundits and gurus who talk about the Internet often seem to want to draw strict boundaries between old mass-media culture and the more egalitarian forms taking shape online — and between Internet life and life in the physical world…Sometimes the pointless-seeming jokes that spring from the Web seem to be calling a bluff and showing a truth: This is what egalitarian cultural production really looks like, this is what having unbounded spaces really entails, this is what anybody-can-be-famous means, this is how the hunger for “moar” gets sated, this is what’s burbling in the hive mind’s id. But the real point is that to pretend otherwise isn’t denying the Internet — it’s denying reality.

Walker references a talk the computer historian Jason Scott gave at the first ROFLCon in 2008 in which he discussed the shallow and seemingly antisocial memes spread by communications networks long before the Internet. Scott discusses electric media going back to the telegraph, but the printing press teemed with the shallow stuff well before the advent of telegraphy. Readers in the 18th century in particular were offered a tantalizing selection of bawdy images and tawdry tales. As the great book historian Robert Darnton has shown, the age of Voltaire and Rousseau was awash in erotica, dirty cartoons, and fancifully libelous tales of the rich and famous.

So where did the deep page come from? Not merely from ignoring the dross — for many alloys exist between poetry and pornography, and at any given moment, it’s never entirely clear which is which. Jonathan Swift, writing his “Battle of the Books” in 1704, didn’t even bother with the bawdy writers. Swift’s satire depicts a war between ancient and modern authors, with the ancients on the side of sweetness and light; it was Descartes and classicist Richard Bentley that drew his ire as much as any Grub Street hack. Swift and other early modern readers engaged in an encounter with a murky multiplicity of shifting possibilities in print. And it was the multiplicity that produced the deep page — presumably along with the brain circuitry underlying it.

At the edges of the deep page lie miles of shallow estuaries, stinking, muddy — and teeming with life. Our plastic brains have been navigating their effluents for a very long time.

POSTED     July 27, 2010, 2 p.m.
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