Welcome to the

Liminal Space Cafe

A response to Hugh McGuire’s Why can’t we read anymore? Or, can books save us from what digital does to our brains?”


Dear Hugh,

I appreciate the predicament described in your essay. You noticed you were doing less long-form reading and perceived this as a function of new patterns of media consumption and especially an addiction (the whole dopamine thing) to an always-on engagement with social media, including email and text messaging. And I’ve no reason to doubt your conclusion that putting a governor on the social media spigot has enhanced your productivity, improved your sleep patterns and increased your overall sense of well-being. [btw: I’m not in any way immune to the problems you describe.]

However, to borrow a phrase, i think you’ve taken one step back, without recognizing it as an opportunity to regroup in order to take two steps forward.

We live in the early stages of what will likely be the most significant shift in the history of human communication: from the era of print to the digital network. Transitions of this nature are inherently messy, characterized by the friction of the new rubbing up against the old. The path is of necessity littered with mistakes and evolutionary dead-ends. IMO you’ve eloquently nailed a lot of the problems associated with our early forays, but i question the strategy of retreating to the safety of past behaviors. This may work for individuals for a while, but i fear it won’t do much to help us figure out the way forward. McLuhan addresses this in Understanding Media in a lament about the most learned members of pre-print culture failing to bring their experience to bear on the new forms of expression and communication being born:

“Had the Schoolmen with their complex oral culture understood the Gutenberg technology, they could have created a new synthesis of written and oral education, instead of bowing out of the picture and allowing the merely visual page to take over the educational enterprise.The oral Schoolmen did not meet the new visual challenge of print, and the resulting expansion or explosion of Gutenberg technology was in many respects an impoverishment of the culture.” [emphasis mine]

From this perspective I suggest that “book people” like you and I, who benefited so much from our nearly unlimited access to books, have a responsibility to help figure out what’s worth preserving from the print era and how to transform it so that it enhances future forms of communication. I realize that’s what you’ve in effect devoted much of your working life to, which is why I was particularly dismayed by your current tack, which seems to suggest an impossible divide between long-form texts and new networked modes.

As an alternative, I invite you to stop by the Liminal Space Cafe where the menu is chock full of delicious, mind-boggling contradictions each of which comes with its own set of complicated trade-offs and compromises. Alas, no one said it would be easy.

As an example of what’s on offer at the LSC, spurred on by your essay, I’ve been thinking about whether there is something about long-form texts themselves which makes them less compelling today, i.e. something inherent in the form itself, not simply in relation to the competition with social media. The theory I’m playing around with, and it seems radical even by my standards, is that those of us who have been “wired” for twenty years are living, breathing examples of McLuhan’s central point, that changes in the means of communication alter basic characteristics of the people doing the communicating.

Whether on Facebook, on list-serves like this, or even in long email threads, thinking itself is increasingly something we do in public and out loud. Another spot-on McLuhan quote, this time from The Medium is the Massage:

“Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for each other.”

In their present instantiation long-form texts are not conducive to collaborative effort. Print books, and ebooks, only slightly less so, remain islands unto themselves with no or at best limited affordances to connect readers to each other (or one text to another).

A quick anecdote: A couple of years ago I gave a talk to the editorial group at Johns Hopkins Press and Project Muse. I mentioned at one point that I disliked Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and was desperate for a mechanism to discuss it with the host of online friends who were reading it at the same time. One of the editors raised her hand and said “I’ve been listening to you for an hour and up now I thought you were crazy. But, I also hated Freedom, so much that for the first time in my life I sought out a reading group.”

In this regard, it’s interesting to note that the viewing of TV programs at the time of their broadcast went up 20% with the advent of Twitter, indicating a desire to consume collaboratively. My ten year experience with social reading suggests that we might see a similar increase if long-form texts began appearing in platforms enabling people to gather in the margins with trusted friends and colleagues.

I take heart from the experience of three high school students who after two years of doing all their Spanish literature reading in SocialBook begged their teacher to stay on for one more class instead of retiring, so they could read Don Quijote together. Six thousand comments later they summed it up this way. “It’s been a self-compounding learning process where we constantly inspire each other’s insights.” And, “working in the margins of SocialBook we have discussions on far more topics and in far greater depth than a paper-based approach would allow.”

Given that the Liminal Space Cafe is virtual, I’m wondering if you’d be interested in experimenting with social reading. Name a text, an essay, a full-length monograph or even a chapter. I’ll get permission from the publisher if necessary, and get it into SocialBook. My instinct is that like those students we might spur each other on to some important insights along the way.

with warm and respectful regards,

bob