What the Digital Does to Reading: a panel held at the MLA Convention, Los Angeles, CA; January 9, 2011.

Daniel Shore, What Would Jesus Google?
Renee Hudson and Kimberly Knight, Social Book Catalogs and Reading
Julie Meloni, Illuminating Hidden Paths

Daniel Shore, What Would Jesus Google? Plural Reading in the Digital Archive:

One of the most popular forms of modern ethical deliberation, especially among North American evangelicals, is the question, "What Would Jesus Do?" While the tradition of imitatio Christi stretches back to the life of Christ, my research suggests that this question is only about 400 years old. In the early years of the seventeenth century English preachers and theologians began to challenge their parishioners to do not as Christ did but rather as he would do. I read this modal shift, from indicative to subjunctive, as signaling a profound change in historical consciousness. Believers only began to ask what Christ would do as they became aware of the historical disparity between Christ's life and their own.

My paper briefly recounts the modal history of imitatio Christi as a case study for a kind of research that is only now, with the development of digital archives like Google Books and Early English Books Online, becoming possible. I want to suggest that these archives will allow us to tell new kinds of stories about the transformation and dispersion of small-scale, local forms (such as the subjunctive mode) across national, temporal, discursive, and linguistic borders.

The focus on local forms leads me to revise Franco Moretti's concept of "distant reading." While I share Moretti's goal of a "comparative morphology," which he defines as "the systematic study of how forms vary in space and time," the achievement of this goal does not require, and is in many instances hindered by, "distance." What is required, I argue, and what digital archives make possible, is plurality. For this reason my paper ends by sketching out a notion of "plural reading."

[Daniel Shore has recently published a related essay on the modal history of imitatio Christi.]

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Renee Hudson and Kimberly Knight, Social Book Catalogs and Reading: Shifting Paradigms, Humanizing Databases

Our paper addresses paradigms of reading that arise out of practices of online social book cataloging. Social book catalogs, like LibraryThing and Goodreads, mark a fundamental transition in the nature of the catalog from a mere finding list to a marker of experience. That is, practices of online social book cataloging emphasize the role of cataloging as part of constructing one's online identity such that reading becomes a public index of the self rather than an activity that occurs in isolation. While one could argue that reading has always been an index of the self, we argue that with the rise of online environments, reading as part of one's subjectivity becomes explicitly articulated through the cataloging interface and in terms of how users on these sites relate to one another. User relationships in these digital social environments work as either the dominant modality on dedicated websites like LibraryThing, or as part of a larger socially networked environment, like Facebook, depending on the extent to which reading is emphasized.

We read the work of assembling a digital archive that encompasses the texts one has read, as well as those one would like to read, as a performative act through which a user articulates subjectivity as a reader. For instance, a user who lists several books on pregnancy or child raising highlights his or her role as a parent while a user who adds books on Henry James and Marcel Proust marks his or her identity as a reader of high brow literature. The catalog is formed, however, as more than a list of books: readers add to the archive paratextual discourse in the form of reviews, comments, and discussion groups. Thus the offline experiences of reading (often analog and individual) are transferred online where they are incorporated into the book catalog and the larger reading community. This shifts the nature of a catalog from items collected in one location to a collection of reader experiences. As such, individual catalogs can be read as "databases of the self" (Vesna). Strategies of reading these databases might include the browsing of book lists or cover images, reading ancillary material such as reviews, or data visualizations of user info, including tag clouds, graphs, etc. Additionally, these individual databases may be aggregated and read as the expression of an entire reading network. Our paper, in addressing the relationship between the reader and the catalog, analyzes the ways in which the acts of catalog creation and reading are framed by the databases that underlie social book cataloging utilities as well as the impact of the catalog's "online" status on the discourses that surround acts of reading.

We argue that practices of social book cataloging, as performative acts of identity, serve to humanize data and make databases legible, at the scale of the individual and the community. Thus practices of social book cataloging act as "the join" between analog and digital strategies of reading by bringing together print reading, distance or database reading, and visualization. This "join" maps a topography of online reading practices in which experience traverses the typical boundaries between our offline and online experiences such that social book catalogs, as well as the networks in which they are embedded, re figure the linearity, temporality, and geography of social reading networks.

Working Bibliography

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Manovich, Lev. "Database as Symbolic Form." Vesna 39 – 60.
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Professional Reading Environment (PReE). Electronic Textual Cultures Lab (ETCL). University of Victoria. 05 June 2009.
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Stone, Allucquére Rosanne. "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?: Boundary Stories about Virtual Cultures." Reading Digital Culture. Ed. David Trend. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.
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Vesna, Victoria. "Seeing the World in a Grain of Sand." Vesna 3 – 38.
Vesna, Victoria, Ed. Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007.
"Visual Bookshelf." Facebook.com. 1 June 2009. Web. 1 June 2009.
Weinbren, Grahame. "Ocean, Database, Recut." Vesna 61 – 85.
"weRead." weRead.com, 3 June 2009. Web. 3 June 2009.

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Julie Meloni, Illuminating Hidden Paths: Reading and Annotating Texts in Many Dimensions

[abstract forthcoming]

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