Because somebody has to figure out what to do with e-readers.

I’ve tended to be a bit negative about e-reading. Partly because I just like holding a book, and partly because many studies seem to suggest that it significantly changes the reading experience–which I’m pretty happy with the way it is, thanks.

Given that I approach this subject negatively, I was surprised to find myself fascinated by Adrian Johns‘s talk “As our Readers Go Digital. Johns makes a provocative case for the benefits of using e-readers. He does this by relating such uses back to the development of print–his field of expertise–with a nifty reading of a passage from Milton’s “Areopagitica”:

First, the advent of this dislocated, ‘universal’, skeptical reading practice – along with the places and formats that sustained it – provoked constructive responses as well as calls for simple repression. The problem was to uphold cultural order, and to do that one must confirm “good” reading in the new environment of rivalry. You see the problem addressed first in John Milton’s famous tract on censorship, Areopagitica. Much of Milton’s tract was devoted to defining the responsibilities of reading in this febrile world. Consider his marvelous image of London:

Behold now this vast city, a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty….The shop of war hath not there more anvils and hammers waking to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed justice in defense of beleaguered truth than there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching reformation; others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement. What could a man require more from a nation so pliant and so prone to seek after knowledge? What wants there to such a towardly and pregnant soil but wise and faithful laborers to make a knowing people, a nation of prophets, of sages, and of worthies? … Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.

The question was how to frame what Milton called a “generous prudence” that could furnish common ground for sparring readers beyond all institutions. It did not exist when Milton was writing. By the time of, say, Addison and Steele, less than a century later, it did: there were widely accepted norms of good and bad, expert and inexpert reading – in coffeehouses, of periodicals. Coffeehouse culture had become civilized, learned. As Thomas Hobbes said, even science itself came to find a home in the media and practices of this environment.

Johns sees an analogy between the creation and development of the infamous Enlightenment public sphere and the prospects ahead of us in the digital age. He calls those of us who care about judicious reading to both maintain those values and instill them in students. This seems to me a very important point in the wash of fears and panic-mongering about the new information onslaught:

This matter of readerly responsibility is, I think, important in a generalized sense. It may even be the key to the 3 Ps’ role in digital culture. We, like Milton, live at a moment when knowledge has left institutions and is wandering through strange and ill-defined spaces. We too face fears of skepticism, credulity, and a world where the civility of reading – its role in civic life – is up for grabs. In early modern Europe, it was only when a civility of reading was developed – partly through the revival of older skills, partly by a new forensics of the book – that corrosive credulity and skepticism were checked and a “public sphere” could come into being. Much of the Enlightenment depended on that achievement. What we have in prospect is another historic shift of the same order of magnitude. We too need to establish foundations for it: we need standards for creditable reading. As in Casaubon’s day, they will surely come from a merger of the old and the new, and some element of them will be forensic. That is, they will involve source criticism – both textual and algorithmic, including a comprehension of metadata – and historical – the history of the book, for example – at the same time.

Someone needs to articulate this. The fact that books have “left the building” leaves us inside the building with a more important task than ever. But it is something that calls for real change in the institutional and professional structures we inhabit – change of a kind not often enough appreciated. The roles of librarian and faculty need to be interpermeable again (as they were in Milton’s day). It isn’t enough for librarians to become “informationists,” as those at Johns Hopkins reportedly have. When places, practices, and publics are all up for grabs, to forge them anew we all need to become something more – something for which the seventeenth century had a much better word: intelligencers. Intelligencers were the skilled mediators of Milton’s day – people like Samuel Hartlib, Henry Oldenburg, Marin Mersenne, and Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc – who made possible the maturing of rancor, credulity, and skepticism into a relatively polite and cosmopolitan public sphere. We need more like them now.

I am not at all sure that academia is well equipped to produce these intelligencers; none of those I have just named came from universities. But if not us, who?

This turn to the ethics of e-reading, and to the need to invent new ethical standards to accommodate it, seems to me much needed. Ethical questions, and more broadly human questions, tend to be given little if any attention in discussions of e-reading technology. I recently blogged about an example here, where the questions being asked are about speed-reading rather than comprehension. Or, in other words, about the results that it’s easiest to communicate in our current public sphere. How many of us know how fast we read? Probably not many, but all of us have some ideas about what we’ve read and why.

To quote a favorite film, Miller’s Crossing, “I’m talkin’ about friendship. I’m talkin’ about character. I’m talkin’ about – hell. Leo, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word – I’m talkin’ about ethics.”