The Social Nature of Books

Marshall McLuhan famously stated that “the medium is the message”. He asserted that any technology can be seen as a medium, and studying the effects of this technology on society tells us far more than the content it delivers. It is an interesting perspective, in that it removes the technology, or the medium, from the context it is used for, and instead studies it solely for the way it influences society. Friedrich Kittler and Raymond Williams have both responded to this model — Kittler in agreement (more or less) and Williams in opposition. This post aims to reflect on the social nature of books through these two contrary lenses.

The Oxford English Dictionery defines a book as: “A portable volume consisting of a series of written, printed, or illustrated pages bound together for ease of reading”. We have historically come to understand a books as a collection of printed pages, bound between two covers, to be consumed sequentially. This definition, however, has slowly come to change, as we steadily move away from the printed medium to reading on screens — a book is now any experience that unfolds over time, unified by an overarching theme. Technological developments are allowing us to not only consume books, but becomes users of books. We are no longer just reading for ourselves, finishing a story and then moving on to the next. Instead, we are encouraged to be fully immersed in a experience, supplementing the written word with moving images and sound. New platforms are also giving us a chance to experience reading not as a solitary activity, but a social one. We are encourage to comment, share, review books, to make public our thoughts and reactions, and build communities around a love for books.

This process echoes Friedrich Kittler’s interpretation of McLuhan’s “The Media is the Message” (Chapter 1 of Understanding Media). Kittler puts forth that technology is developed strategically to override our senses, and to give us a metaphor according to which we can understand the human experience. He also states that the “media determine our situation.” According to this model, we can say that the ever-changing nature of screens has allowed us to fully immerse our senses into the act of reading, and enhanced the limited experience of a static printed page, and through the emergence of platforms that allow for a communal reading experience, we have realised the full potential of books.

However, one can argue that reading a book is not merely an engagement with the written word, but that the written word can triggers visceral responses across all our senses. For example, reading Murakami’s description of food can make one’s mouth water, imagining the taste as if it were real; JRR Tolkien’s vivid descriptions of landscapes allows us to see every last blade of grass; Proust’s descriptions of music allow us to create music from silence. The evolving nature of books is merely trying to translate already existing human faculties into tangible experiences. One can also argue that the act of reading has been, and always will be, an inherently social endeavour. In fact, upon reading a good book, the first thing most of us do is find someone to discuss it with. It is not the technology that is shaping our experiences, rather our experiences and habits that have guided the evolution of these platforms. In this way, we can see technology as Williams does, as a by-product of a social process that is otherwise determined.

This reading of the problem is the one that resonates with me more. Unlike McLuhan and Kittler, Williams opposes the one-sided deterministic view of media and human process. He says that we must look at development of media as neither the cause nor the effect of social structures, but a system where both these variables work in tandem.