Intimate Technology?

Literature, Reading and the Argumentation Defending Book and Print

How to Cite

Joensuu, J. (2005). Intimate Technology? Literature, Reading and the Argumentation Defending Book and Print. M/C Journal, 8(2).
Vol. 8 No. 2 (2005): 'print'
Published 2005-06-01


Usually, when reading or literature is being discussed, the contents of that discussion (like themes, symbols, poetic means, etc.) are focused. The humanities or academic criticism have rarely drawn their attention to the material media of literature. However, in recent years some of the conversation concerning literature has shifted the focus from contents to the material side. It has been a matter of working in a good cause: this conversation has been aroused by digital culture and its fearsome threat to print culture and books in general.

It is evident that digitalization has given rise to a certain rhetorical system among the defenders of the traditional book and print. These are easily distinguished in discussions dealing with the advantages and favoured traits of print and book. This kind of traditionalist argumentation is based firstly on the claimed interruption and deep differences between print culture and digital culture. Secondly, it emphasizes the emotional and sensual factors of reading and tends to adore books as objects, and – third – by doing that, it also takes a somewhat nostalgic or mystifying approach to reading fiction.

Because inventing neologisms is always amusing, this rhetorical system could be called intimism. The new word is coined from ‘intimacy’ and ‘intimate’, because the print-defending arguments always reduce their main idea to thoughts of close, warm, private, safe, and familiar nature of reading.

Intimism wants to see the “traditional” culture in opposition to the “new” culture that threatens to destroy the print culture and even literacy. It sees print as the language of culture and civilization, which is under threat of becoming extinct. It is questionable, though, whether print culture needs advocates in the first place. It is possibly the most victorious and pervasive innovation throughout human history and shows no signs of fading or collapsing whatsoever.

When I claim that intimism attaches nostalgic and mystifying approaches to print, the point is not to nullify the value of subjective reading experiences or the inexplicable features always present in reading. Also, I am not “defending” digitalization. Rather, I am aiming to highlight some tropes cast at reading as an act, and see how reading printed books is figured rhetorically.

Intimism bases its argumentation on the thought of deep interruption between print-orientated culture and digitalization. Cultural periods (orality, print, digital) are not clearly consecutive, but overlapping. Orality has lived side by side with print, and will live with and in digital culture too. There’s plenty of resemblances and residues to oral culture in digital forms of communication. Print culture is deeply entangled with digital culture, technologically as well as content-wise. Book-printing is so utterly digitalized that only thing in the production process of books that is not digital is the book itself.

Furthermore, it is not fair to treat the existing digital literature as one “lump”. Electronic literature is divided in different categories. Digitalization of (already) printed literature – conserving classic literature and making it electronically available – is very different from genuinely digital texts, new literature published as a digital file (to be read from computer screen or hand-computer) or texts that take full advantage of digital opportunities, such as interactivity, linking, updating, programming, multimedia, or internet. These sorts of “originally digital” texts base their logic of functioning and textual dynamics on digital technology – thus being impossible to print.

Digital text is not a clear-cut object in the same way we can think print is. In short, electronic text is fluent; print is static. According to Jay David Bolter, “all information … in the computer world is a kind of controlled movement” (Bolter 31). Electronic text can be transported into thousands of computers simultaneously; it can be renewed, updated, or destroyed from a distance. Text on the computer screen is one possible instantiation of the coding we do not usually associate with the text “itself”. What is the equivalent for coding of the text in print? The physical appearance of the text does not identify itself in the same way with the reading surface as in print, where the text is literally pressed into the surface making these two inseparable.


William Gass, among many others, sees the charm of the book connected very closely to the charm of the physical, material nature of book. Gass argues that

We shall not understand what a book is, and why a book has the value many persons have, and is even less replaceable than a person, if we forget how important to it is its body, the building that has been built to hold its lines of language safely together.

For Gass, digital texts are texts without bodies. They wander endlessly in the digital space, restless, so that they seem to be like textual ghosts (and maybe therefore be fearsome?). Gass sees digital texts as pale shadows of their printed forerunners. Words on paper patiently wait to be reread, but words on a screen are transient, “they only wait to be remade, relit” (Gass). The very essence of the book lies in its material body, which keeps its lines “safely together” and identifies its contents with the medium, the beloved paper object.

In this light, Amy Tan’s formulation is significant. (Her comments were adopted from Koskimaa 2000. This TV panel discussion with Tan, Harold Bloom and Dick Brass is yet to pin down.) She said that books, unlike electronic texts, are charmingly sensual. The term sensual can be understood in two ways, which are both interesting from the standpoint here. When we read, books as objects are in permanent contact with our senses. Sight, feeling, and even hearing are important factors in reading, the first mentioned crucially so, with smelling or tasting more rare (even though some hard-core biblio-fetishists enjoy sniffing their loved ones). Secondly, sensual can be understood as in sentence “her lips are sensual”. Sensual in this meaning connects reading with something that is both emotional and aesthetic: emotional, because it is hardly definable; simultaneously unattainable, but clearly present in its internality. Something present only for me. “Aesthetism” claims that reading (and specifically reading book) is in itself aesthetic deed – some sort of modelled cultural act.

Treating books and print as if they had human characteristics, in other words to anthropomorphise them, seems to be typical to this manner of speaking. Books consist of two crucially human denominators – body and soul. The bond between the book and its reader resembles to friendship. Books love us almost as much as we love them. They are “even less replaceable than a person”. They supply “warmth of the word”, as Gass puts it, almost like you’d have a close friend next to you to share your feelings. And, is not the previously-mentioned sensuality also closely connected to carnal pleasures?

These argumentation lines both entangle contents and subjective experiences with a certain medium, the printed book. They evaluate form with content by claiming that a medium an sich has positive impacts on the message. Intimism makes reading an external ceremony of cultivation to which certain feelings can be attached. W.J. Ong has described writing as internalized technology (Ong 81-83). We could now reverse this thought – intimism externalizes the subjective and private value of reading into acceptable reading of printed book. It thus technologises the internal, inexplicable and obscure core of reading.


In a digital context, according to Gass, reading itself cannot shape the book like in print, where an avid reader leaves traces and marks on the body of book. This makes electronic text impersonal, distant to the reader and, in a way, overdetermined by the technology it’s based on.

This overdetermination is something that makes us irritatingly conscious of the technological ground we are working on when we are reading an electronic text. Technology pushes itself through to the fore from between the lines, it makes itself extremely present, more present than with reading in the technology of print, or so it feels to us. The printed book seems to be more able to efface, to obscure, its technological nature. We are so used to the book as a form of presentation, that we can easily ignore its technological and material bases. Maybe the feeling of absence makes for the high feeling of presence in the technology of print and book?

As intimism foregrounds the material aspects of literature, which are usually backgrounded, some writers have underlined this material paradox by hoisting the very technology of book and print, even revelling in it, and throwing the medium of the book, the machine of literature, usually so lame and tame, in your face. This kind of overdetermination of the technology of the printed novel begins at least in the Baroque period or with Laurence Sterne, traversing through the nouveaux roman and American metafictionists such as Barth, Federman, and Sukenick.

For intimism, print is an intimate technology. It is a seemingly paradoxical concept, because usually technology is thought to be something formal or external. The intimist argumentation projects contents into the form, and unlike the mentioned authors who fool around with our literal automatisms, it takes a moral, restrictive and colonizing stance to reading and its technologies.


Based and re-written on the paper held in Baltic Ring: International Writing and Reading Seminar, 11.- 13. April 2002, University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

Author Biography

Juri Joensuu