Myth and symbol slide and skid,
It’s lost for good, the fine old trail.
They don’t thrill at the sign as we once did,
Trapped as we were between the ego and the id.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.”
It’s said that Lévi-Strauss in fact suggested using the phrase “Pansies for Thoughts” as the title for his book in English. Shakespeare’s plays are dotted with such evocations of the folk wisdom of flowers, which have been held up as proof of the Bard’s humble origins; a Francis Bacon or an Earl of Oxford might have known the classical names of plants, but the peasants’ categories would have been beyond his mien. The meanings of flowers are documented at great length in Victorian “floriographies,” or flower languages, which elaborate the passions, attributes, and states of mind symbolized by dozens of varieties of wild and cultivated trees, shrubs, and herbs. The Ash Tree represents Grandeur, or Prudence; the Bee Orchis, Industry; the Chickweed, Rendezvous. One could compose a message to one’s beloved in the form of a bouquet—although by the time the dear one would have decoded the terms, the posie would have withered away. The floriographies all include a flower that arouses the curiosity of someone looking into traces of reading and writing throughout the culture: a flower called the Abecedary, symbolizing Volubility. The (far more common) non-floral use of the word abecedary is in connection with alphabets written out or printed and illustrated for children, a usage which dates back to the Middle Ages, and covers alphabets reproduced on hornbooks and school slates and carved into headstones. The floral meaning of abecedary isn’t documented by the Oxford English Dictionary, even though it’s in alI the floriography volumes—at least the ones I’ve checked thus far in Google Books, including the most famous one illustrated by Kate Greenaway (published in 1885; alas Kate made no illustration of the abecedary flower). The fullest explanation appears in The Language of Flowers (1835):
Volubility, Abecedary. This plant is a native of the island of Fernalus; when you chew its head, or roots, the tongue feels a stimulating sensation, that gives it a singular fluency. This plant is employed in looseing children’s tongues, whence comes its name abecedary, or children’s grass.
A flower that gives a singular fluency: that’s one for my garden, to bloom between the poppies and the morning glories. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to exist. It’s as though in a Structuralist move the Victorian floriographers had identified the need for a Volubility flower, a necessary node in the paradigm of the flowers pertaining to the quality of comprehensive and compulsive loquacity, which they answered with a postulated blossom named (naturally enough) for the alphabet.
[T]hough buyers and sellers might have this conversation several times over their lives, notaries engaged in these conversations dozens, if not hundreds, of times per year. Categories emerged naturally in this conversational field, and the notary, steward of these conversations, naturally had the greatest influence over the field’s evolution…. In these circumstances, it’s easy to appreciate how a very slight and unacknowledged preference on the part of the notaries would gradually fix it in the conversational field. One can posit an evolving form that promotes the political goals of the notaries without having to attribute any purpose or intention to the notaries themselves (my emphasis).
Of course there is intention and purpose in the system, Smail allows, but it’s personal, limited in space and time, not a case of grand, scheming ideological structure. What’s in this for me? Well, it’s a handy and inspiring way to think about the rise of writing in general, and of specific letterforms, as memes facing selection pressures that change with dips and explosions in media, genres, and social and cultural forms. So there’s a retrospective use, helping to understand the existence of stuff like serifs and dotted i’s thrive while eths and thorns and a host of scribal abbreviations die out. And prospectively, it help enrich my sense of the future of reading and writing—mostly by reminding me that it will be decided by no business plan or venture capitalist, but by all of us getting in there, using and breaking the new tools, and making new things and experiences with them.
What do e-books look like from the vantage point of bedtime?Reading’s deep roots in our consciousness are grown during the lengthy period we spend playing with books, looking at them, and hearing them read by loving adults. The symbiosis of reading with intimate domestic scenes is in part a product of the technologies that made inexpensive, colorful books possible. And as Maryanne Wolf discusses in her thought-provoking book Proust and the Squid, this relatively late-emerging nexus of print and childhood produces much of the framework—not only the cultural, but the cognitive—that makes our culture’s particular kind of literacy. Now technologies are changing. Where is bedtime reading in all of this? It occurs to me that despite the enormous commercial importance of the children’s book market, the new e-readers aren’t really designed with such reading in mind. Certainly one can read YA novels, fantasy books, and such on a Kindle or a nook—but this hardly begins to encompass the spectrum of the book in modern childhood. Despite its name, the Kindle is no kindergarten. The possibilities are legion, and I hope designers publishers will entertain many models. The notion of a kind of Kindle for kids, a Speak &Spell-esque plastic thingie that beeps and sings, frankly horrifies me. Kids don’t need opportunities to buy digital books, or to parrot answers in exchange for Skinneresque rewards like bleeps and jingles. Kids don’t need to read their way into markets and commercials; better is the feral, recursive, ever-growing jungle of the imagination that books can make. Perhaps e-reading for kids will work best if it’s disintermediated and incorporated into interesting objects of all kinds. The kind of thing I’m thinking of is represented well by Siftables, invented by David Merrill and Jeevan Kalinithi at the MIT Media Lab. Siftables are programmable blocks with displays, which can interact with each other to build stories or songs or games. (If you haven’t seen them, check out the embedded video; they’re amazing.) Maryanne Wolf worries that whatever comes next in reading won’t offer the same cognitive development as the book has given us in the modern era. Siftables are just one example of the beginnings of a solution. Of course, Siftables aren’t books (although I’m sure you’ll agree, the possibilties of a Siftables edition of Goodnight Moon, or Where the Wild Things Are, or some altogether new kind of children’s storybook experience, are pretty spectacular). But they seem to offer one way to offer a meditative, deeply immersive play with words, stories, and ideas that looks a lot like childhood reading. And failing that, or in addition to it, there’s nothing should keep us from lowering the lights and pulling out a battered copy of Where the Wild Things Are. With
Pointing out that “the Kindle is more like a 7-Eleven than a book,” Jason Kottke urges us to think of reading, and not shopping, as the focal activity of an e-reader. In any ideal e-reader, he argues, blogs, magazines, web sites, PDFs, and email, along with books of all kinds, would be accessible and interpenetrating.
In a discussion of single-use devices at Snarkmarket, Tim Carmody suggests splitting the difference between e-readers and digital Swiss Army knives like the iPhone. “Tear down the walls between the ’separate’ functions on multi-function devices,” he writes. “It should feel like a device that has one function — just that the function is complex, multilayered, integrated.”
Carmody and Kottke remind me of one of the greatest fictional single-use devices ever:
“What is it?” asked Arthur.
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a sort of electronic book. It tells you everything you need to know about anything. That’s it’s job.”
Arthur turned it over nervously in his hands.
“I like the cover,” he said. “‘Don’t Panic.’ It’s the first helpful thing anybody’s said to me all day.”
“I’ll show you how it works,” said Ford. He snatched it from Arthur, who was still holding it as if it were a two-week-dead lark, and pulled it out of its cover.
“You press this button here, you see, and the screen lights up, giving you the index.”
A screen, about three inches by four, lit up and characters began to flicker across the surface…. Ford pressed a large red button at the bottom of the screen and words began to undulate across it. At the same time, the book began to speak the entry as well in a still, quiet, measured voice….
Fortunately for Ford Prefect, the Earth had just been destroyed by the Vogons, so he didn’t need to worry about getting a takedown notice from the Author’s Guild over the question of audio rights.
A notable, dark-horse entry in the race to create the RL version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide is the Wikireader. It’s a small gray-screened device with three buttons, two AAA batteries, and an SD card with the entire contents of Wikipedia loaded for browsing anywhere.
There’s something appealingly quixotic about the Wikireader. It’s less like the Hitchhiker’s Guide than one of those “20 Questions” games—more of a hardware stunt than a product with real commercial appeal. But at $99, it seems way to expensive. It should retail for something like $29 tops. And come with a towel.