The history of reading is littered with extreme emotions, especially during times of technological change. At the end of the eighteenth century, a period that witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of books, and one that has never since abated, writers began comparing reading to a “plague,” a “madness,” and a “flood” (as in the Biblical deluge). The Enlightenment German theologian, Johann Gottfried Hoche, even called reading the new “sodom.” On the other end of the spectrum, the Romantic essayist Leigh Hunt fantasized about marrying his books. The novelist Karl Immermann, author of the famed Adventures of Baron von Münchhausen, had this to say about himself as a child standing before his parents’ bookshelves: “The sheer sight of a book would set the afflicted child in a kind of quivering curiosity. The young creature lived and breathed only in print.” And we shouldn’t forget Edgar Allen Poe, whose murderous narrator of his short-story, “Berenice,” kills his cousin and then pours her teeth out on his desk – he was born in a library.
Changes to the material landscape of reading elicit strong emotions. We may say, repeatedly, that the medium doesn’t matter, that only the words are important. But our reactions tell us something very different. The material nature of reading, our physical experience of those words, makes a difference in how we respond to them.
When readers were told that what they did with their kindles or tablets or screens wasn’t “reading,” they lashed out, much like the long history of readers before them. To say what reading is or is not is to impugn one of our most personal possessions.