Thursday, March 29, 2007

Textual Contingency

I've been cutting down on the amount of time I spend online lately. That's not really an excuse for not posting to this blog, however, because there is nothing to stop me from writing (as am I now doing) a post in an ordinary (offline) text editor and then spending a few seconds online to post it.

But by staying away from web-texts for whole evenings at a time (!), I have noticed something about them: they are contingent in a very striking way. Now, as an editor, I deal with textual contingencies every day. Indeed, I try to get my authors to see their texts as much more contingent than they are normally inclined to. I try to approach a text as something that could be otherwise, something that doesn't necessarily have to be the way it is, something that can be improved.

But that implies a sometimes burdensome responsibility. After all, if something is less than good and you are in a position to change it, then you can't just leave things as they are. You have to take action.

This is why it is good know of a few really good books. As an editor, it is painful to read a poorly written book (after it has been published), but it is a real joy to read a well-written and carefully edited work of literature. It's nice to read something you don't feel you have to do anything to.

That brings me back to the Web. Comment boxes, blogs and wikis provide opportunities to interact instantly with what what you read, and the readiness to do so is a physical part of how you read. (I'm almost certain a neurologist could prove this by measuring various kinds of synaptic activity.) There is a great difference between writing onto a blank page (unconnected to the Internet), reading a book, and "interacting" with a website.

There is something to be said for separating the activities of writing, reading and editing. The web has a tendency to blur them.