Sunday, October 28, 2012

Digitize This!

It’s a common scene in today’s college classroom.  The students file into class, the professor begins to discuss that day’s reading, and out come the electronic devices.  The students aren’t being rude, mind you.  Well, maybe that one guy in the back with a laptop is actually checking Facebook or looking for hubcaps on eBay (this has happened before).  But the rest really are looking at their reading, because more and more students engage with the written word as a digital text, more or less on part with an email, or a text, or a tweet.  The problem from my perspective is at least twofold.  First, they come to regard all of this writing on par with each other, so it's not unusual for them to turn in academic papers with "i" for "I" and "u" for you.  Second, reading complex texts on a screen prevents them from doing something that they desperately need to do:  practice active reading, especially in the form of marking up texts with underlines and asterisks and plenty of marginalia.  When unsophisticated readers--hell, even sophisticated readers--encounter difficult material, they need to work hard to get the most out of those texts, but they don’t see it that way; most of my students—the ones who do the reading, anyway—just want to consume the assignment as conveniently and painlessly as possible.

Now, I’m no Luddite.  I’ve got an iPhone, I use social media, and I can program my DVR with my right hand while I’m checking with my left.  I’m not, in short, like the rest of my family: my parents, who have never owned a computer, and my brother, who still uses a VCR (the Walgreen’s by his house has stopped selling VHS tapes, so he hoards the three or four that he has left like it’s the post-apocalypse and they were cans of tuna).

I do, however, draw the digital line at books, and not just because e-reading works against my students’ best interests.  It’s also because I’m a reader who loves to hold books, feel the pages turn, smell the rich scent of ink-infused pulp.

All of which makes the release of Chris Ware’s Building Stories earlier this month the publishing event of the year.  At least to me.

For the uninitiated, Ware is the James Joyce of comics, pushing the boundaries of the form to their limits, and then some.  This latest book of his is about the lives of four people who, for a time, share space in a Chicago apartment building.  But it’s not simply a “book”; instead, Building Stories is fourteen separate comics that come packaged in a box about the size of a board game.  And the comics themselves take different forms.  There are a couple of little hardbacks (one of which looks like one of those “Golden Key” children's books), fold-out strips, a newspaper-style pamphlet, a huge poster whose central image is a life-size drawing of a baby, and others that defy easy description (see picture above).  With no direction in terms of how to order these stories, it’s up to readers to create their own master narrative; with fourteen different books, the number of different combinations for that master narrative is over 87,000,000,000 (that’s a factorial right there, baby).

Some comics readers find Ware’s work to be a little remote and a lot depressing.  In Building Stories, though, he shows how effective comics can be in revealing the humanizing details of our lives.

It’s difficult to reduce this book to a simple explanation, which is part of its point.  It’s also impossible to reduce this book to a digital copy, which for me, is a huge part of its appeal.

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