My Acts of Reading – Andrew Prescott

 

 

In an earlier post on this blog, Sue Thomas asked us to consider where and how we read. She reminded us of Alberto Manguel’s comment that ‘the act of reading in time requires a corresponding act of reading in place, and the relationship between the two acts is inextricable’. Sue reflected that this sense of reading and place is being further transformed by the device we use when we read.

 

Many of my most vivid memories are associated with reading, from my mother teaching me to read before I went to school, to my father taking me as a child to the children’s library on Saturday morning and the terrifying moment as a first-year postgraduate when I first tried (and failed) to read a medieval document on my own, leaving me wondering what type of career I might eventually have. As it was, I mastered medieval handwriting and went on to work at the British Library. When I first saw the World Wide Web in 1993 (thanks to that remarkable man Tim Hadlow, then the British Library’s Systems Administrator), I immediately felt it would change everything.

 

But it was really in the practice of writing that I first noticed the changes. By the time I left the British Library in 2000, I was already writing so little by hand that my handwriting (once a beautiful Italic hand) had deteriorated to illegibility, and I found the way in which universities are (still) so incredibly dependent on a bureaucracy of forms completed by hand a shock to the system. In 2000, I used the computer for writing, e-mail, keeping indexes on databases, looking at images, preparing Powerpoints and checking library catalogues, but not really for reading. Even when I was looking at images of manuscripts, I was viewing them more as objects than as texts to be read. It was from about 2003, as more and more academic journals were becoming available online, that I noticed that I was starting to read academic articles almost exclusively on my computer. This was part of a major and largely unstudied shift which John Regazzi has recently described in his book, Scholarly Communications: A History from Content as King to Content as Kingmaker. Humanities academics abandoned a default mode of checking bibliographies first, then monographs, then articles, and moved instead towards going first to journal articles, increasingly identified through Google. The shape, chronology and disciplinary spread of this change requires further investigation, but in my case there is no question that it turned my normal research procedure upside down.

 

I think this shift towards use of the online article reflects more than the unwillingness of an overweight academic to heave himself out of a comfortable chair and head to the library. It was about the easiest way of finding out the scholarly state of play on a particular subject. Using Google or a word search to find the most recent articles, and then using those articles as a gouging knife to dig out the key issues and literature on a subject is in many ways a more effective process than trying to work out the current state of play from monographs and printed bibliographies, both of which might be considerably out of date. By 2005, I found that, for my academic reading, most of my reading of journal articles was taking place online, but books were still read in the conventional way in bed, on buses, on trains and (for me) above all in libraries. I should perhaps explain that unlike many academics I have never built up a very carefully selected or extensive library. I’ve acquired many academic books over the years, but I suspect that for academic books this was more often than not a means of possessing books or authors I particularly admired, almost as trophies, rather than for use. I have always preferred to work in libraries, and have been lucky enough either worked in libraries or lived in close proximity to major libraries, so my working copies of academic books tend to be library copies. I am assisted considerably in this by having been a member for nearly forty years of the wonderful London Library, with its marvellously liberal lending policies.

 

The next change I noticed was in my relationship with newspapers. Newspapers have always been important to me, as a kind of neutral disengaged space of reading, where I can pretend to relate to the world but actually keep at bay (think of the prisoner Fletcher in Porridge whose reading of The Sun seemed to occupy large parts of the day, as if it was a means of both forgetting the prison and remembering the outside world. Not that I’ve ever felt a prisoner, but it reflects the wonderful way a newspaper can keep your brain in a pleasant neutral gear). My childhood days were punctuated by newspapers: the arrival through the letterbox in the morning; the newspaper vendors in cloth caps and mufflers selling a choice of three London evening newspapers in makeshift shelters at street corners on dark foggy winter nights. Reading a newspaper on the top deck of a bus remained a supreme pleasure for me until well into my 40s. Then it changed: I noticed I had stopped bothering with newspapers in the week (I’ve never been one for magazines). I think the combination of television, radio and the web meant that the pretence of reading it to keep up with current events had been stripped away. I became more conscious that I read newspapers purely as a relaxation activity, and somehow that seemed to be something more appropriate for the weekend. So I read newspapers nowadays on Saturday and Sunday, and will indulge myself with a large number – its one of the high spots of the week – but my relationship with this particular act of reading has profoundly changed.

 

But I remained stubbornly devoted to the book. I continued to read academic books, and my leisure reading was exclusively in old-fashioned printed book form. In Ceredigion, where I live, the excellent public library service is constantly under threat of cuts, and I like to support it. But I also loved pottering round Waterstones, and my essential pre-holiday preparation was a big book purchase, and as soon as I got on holiday, establishing a drip feed of good books was an essential requirement. I didn’t contemplate a Kindle or an iPad – until last year, I had only purchased one e-book, an academic book that I needed in a desperate hurry to complete some footnotes. Last summer, I was reading Mark Ormrod’s magisterial biography of Edward III in the Yale English monarchs series. Mark’s book is a remarkable piece of historical research, but it is 720 pages long. Carrying it around, with laptop and all the other paraphernalia of modern life, started give me nasty twinges in my back. It was clear that a 720 page biography of a king who reigned for fifty years was not something I could any longer contemplate easily reading on buses and trains.

 

I had acquired an iPad a few months earlier, and decided that the pain in my back necessitated a switch to an e-book, and acquired Edward III as an e-biography. It was one of the greatest revelations of my life. It wasn’t just that I no longer had to lumber around that huge brick of ink, paper and card, although that was a great relief. The clarity of the screen and the backlighting seemed somehow to make it easier to connect the book and for me definitely made the reading experience more intense. Far from the iPad getting in the way, I seemed to be able to connect with the e-book much more easily. I had the iPad to hand in odd moments when it would have awkward to get the large book out, so I made much quicker progress with the book. Then, after I had flown through Edward III at a rate which thoroughly surprised me, the convenience of getting the next book was just breathtaking. One of the saddest things in life is finishing a good book just as a bus journey is beginning and not then having something to read. But our rural buses in Ceredigion now have wi-fi, and I can get another e-book while the bus is trundling through the West Wales countryside.

 

My e-Edward III revelation rebooted my reading habits, and seemed to give my reading renewed enthusiasm and productiveness. Eventually, I crossed what I had previously considered the rubicon, and experimented with reading books on a smartphone. I was amazed once again. The phone offered even greater flexibility with no loss of engagement or clarity. The phone meant I could read in situations where previously it was difficult – I could see what a colleague meant when he said that he was able to read a French novel in a rush hour crowd in the tube, thanks to his phone. Indeed, once I began to read on the phone, it somehow came alive for the first time, and it has become more cemented into my life as a result.

 

Yet there is one fundamental area where my reading practices remain unchanged. My doctoral thesis was on the records of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The three years I spent in the Public Record Office exploring medieval court records and assembling transcripts of the cases were among the most satisfying of my life. My transcription process became very set: a 2H pencil and narrow feint punched 10 x 8 writing paper. I wrote on both sides of the paper and put the archival reference on the top left hand corner of the recto of each page. My notes are probably still one of the most comprehensive collections of materials relating to the revolt, and it was the dream of somehow making all this available online that first drew me into the digital humanities. In a remarkable act of scholarly private enterprise, the legal historian Robert Palmer of the University of Houston has scanned many of the record series I worked on – over eight million images of medieval legal records – which are on a website called the Anglo-American Legal Tradition (www.allt.org). I could imagine nothing I would rather spend the rest of my scholarly career doing than exploring this amazing collection of material, and as a result I’ve recently been transcribing legal records again.

 

But here’s the odd thing. Although I put it the images on my iPad, I find it very difficult to produce typed notes on them on my laptop, which seems to me what I should now be doing. Although I can read the records fluently enough, somehow I can only process the information in it if I transcribe it – ideally with a 2H pencil, although sadly nowadays I am compelled to use A4 paper. Why do I feel this need to transcribe to process information? Is it because I got into a habit of work and thought at the Public Record Office that I now am locked into? Is it is residual irreducible marker of my digital immigrant status? There are hints that, reassuringly, it isn’t just me. Ségolène Tarte, in studying the processes used by scholars studying papyri, has found that manual transcription is also important for them, and Ségolène has suggested psychological reasons why that might be the case. Younger colleagues at King’s College London who work extensively with digital images report that they also still regard old-fashioned transcription as an important part of their armoury, while Stuart Dunn tells me that pencil and paper are still indispensable tools in looking at old maps.

 

So, I think that a handwritten transcription will continue to be important in studying materials like my medieval court records. It will be the last bastion of my professional practice that will remain unchanged, although obviously the availability of Robert Palmer’s marvellous AALT resource does mean that I am not now tied to going to Kew to steep myself in this material.

 

What is striking about this process of reshaping my reading practice over the past twenty years is its piecemeal character. It has been a process of gradual renegotiation of my reading habits, according to taste, circumstance and back pain. A lot of current discussion of digital transformations assumes that it will be a sudden, dramatic and disruptive process. A lot of this rhetoric derives from the management theorist Clayton Christensen (and misinterprets Christensen’s work in my view). The supposed disruption of the music industry by online services is frequently taken as a warning of the fate that awaits book publishers, universities, etc., if they don’t get more switched on and digital. My own experience of changed reading practices suggests that a much more common experience of digital transformation is one of gradually shifting accommodation, experiment and realignment – a piecemeal process, not less profoundly transformative for that, but a quieter slower and more gentle process than the ‘disruptions’ digital enthusiasts sometimes loudly call for, without really thinking about what they are demanding.

 

Now, its time for bed, and a good book.

 

 

 

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3 comments on “My Acts of Reading – Andrew Prescott
  1. Barbara says:

    What an interesting reflection. I, too, find myself shifting back and forth between print and electronic in various forms of reading (though very little of my writing is on paper and, like you, my handwriting has grown far less legible through disuse).

    I have been observing undergraduate students for a long time, and even though they tend to search online for informaiton, they seem still to prefer having at least the option of print for things they plan to read closely (and mark up by hand) or study for exams. It’s almost as if they worry that the thing they need might vanish if they can’t hold it in their hands. So far (at least in the US), the textbook industry hasn’t been able to shift students from print to e-versions en masse even if the cost of print is higher. There’s also a sense of the topography of a text – that bit of information is toward the front on the right toward the top of the page. When consulting multiple texts, they like to be able to spread them out to compare them, which is harder to do on a laptop screen.

    Anecdotally, students have told me they prefer reading for pleasure on paper because they spend so much time on screen that it shifts them into a more relaxed frame of mind.

    • Simon Frost says:

      Thank you, Andrew, for your frank reflections. Can I take up your point about note taking, or mark making rather, and perhaps, too, follow your autobiographical lead. Many years ago, before my present career, I served a short but glorious stretch (unlike Fletcher) at art college, where a visiting artist encouraged us to draw, constantly, as a way of seeing and understanding the world, and if we were persistent, he promised, we would soon find ourselves incapable of thinking without a pencil in hand. I persisted and soon found that to be true. But my drawings changed to letters. There are traces in my note taking, though; in the lines and doodles, and in the spacing across the plane of the page. It’s partly why I prefer to take notes on paper because I don’t know of a programme that allows me to draw with letters. The point is that my pencil, back then a device for thinking with, has since been swapped for a pen, a PC laptop, a kindle, a mobile, but they are still thinking devices or, as Claude Pichois said of books, they are all machines for reading and dreaming. My writing and reading devices – any printed codex very much included – are machines for thinking and like any machine they come and go. Carriages were overtaken by cars (in the beginning, very carriage-like), though carriages are still used for the most special occasions, while trams (updated) are currently being re-introduced to some of the swankiest Nordic cities. It is probably safe to predict a relatively long life for the p-book – more widely useful than a landau – but it is converged, and will never recover its earlier hegemony. So – in short – yes. I take your point.

  2. Julia Round says:

    ‘Why do I feel this need to transcribe to process information?’ – This rings so true to me, so thank you Andrew, because this is a question I have asked myself on many occasions. Back in my A-level and undergraduate days I constantly used transcription and even incessant copying and recopying of my own notes and information as a standard revision tactic. Even now I find myself unable to sit in a lecture without taking copious notes (sometimes too copious!). And I find it very difficult to replicate this on a device (whether laptop, iPad or so forth) by typing out my thoughts – which doesn’t make much sense, especially since much of my work is increasingly done this way.

    Simon your point above about ‘drawing with letters’ (good phrase!) is thus a very interesting one to me. Is it the idiosyncratic nature of our own handwriting (I suspect we all have our own shorthand and shortcuts of layout and annotation) that helps embed content more firmly in our minds than composing on a digital device, where formatting and layout are necessarily restricted? Or is it my/our own personal academic histories and practice that have created this, linking the process of writing to familiar scholastic pathways in the brain and kickstarting the ‘I am learning’ mechanism?

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