This past weekend I found myself participating in a lively (and at times heated) discussion about the future of the book and the value of the written word on paper vs. online. The characters nestled around the table at which the discussion ensued included a professor of medieval literature, a poet/writing teacher, a fiction writer/rare book salesperson, an aspiring writer, and a college composition teacher (myself).
The discussion began when the medieval literature professor said she was troubled by students asking if they could read ebook versions of the assigned texts in her course. She knew her answer to the students was no, but she said she also knew she had to think more about why that was her immediate answer. Certainly, she said, it’s important for literature students to read the specific edition she chose (because she chose it for a particular purpose), and certainly students need shared editions so when the class performs a close reading of a particular passage, they are all looking at the same text and can easily find it with the same pagination. But she knew there was another reason she said no to ebooks and it was more about the value of reading printed texts as opposed to etexts–about the different reading experiences students would have whether they read the text in print or online.
I quickly snapped in points about the cost of books and how ebooks could cut down on students’ expenses (a good thing, I believe) and also the changing nature of our students’ reading experiences and processes. Many of our students are now growing up reading online and reading etexts, so I tried to argue perhaps students could have valuable reading experiences reading online the same texts we first encountered in a hardbound book.
The medievalist and the poet disagreed, and the poet added that she will not submit her poems to a publication that exists only online. She doesn’t want her poems read in an electronic version, she said. She wants them read on paper.
And this got me thinking about Harlot, and about our readers’ reading experiences. All of us sitting around the table agreed that online publications can contain multi-media texts that can’t be reproduced in print journals, but a few at the table insisted that the same written text printed in an online publication could not possible be read the same way as it could be on paper. Agreeing that the reading experiences would certainly be different (as of course the reading experience depends on so many factors, not just the form in which it appears), I was a bit concerned by the undertone of a value judgment being attached to those differences. The woman who works in the rare books department of a well-known book store added to the conversation the issue of how “valuable texts” can only be bought by those with the proper resources, and how hard it is for her to observe people buying rare books solely for the purpose of owning them, rather than for an appreciation of the text itself.
All this is to say that I’d like to participate in and hear more discussion of people’s reading experiences with publications like Harlot. What do our readers gain and lose by experiencing our submissions solely online?