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Reviewed by:
  • Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound by Lori Emerson
  • Martha Nell Smith (bio)
Emerson, Lori. Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. $25.

Lori Emerson’s refreshing analysis of ways in which readers encounter texts through various interfaces and instantiations, ways their media transmission influence interpretation, is a welcome augmentation to the fields of digital studies, poetics, book culture, twenty-first-century literary cultures, textual studies, and, with its chapter on the fascicles, Emily Dickinson studies. Emerson reflects on interfaces of our everyday lives—iPhones/smartphones, iPads, MacBooks/PCs, and the computers that operate our video/audio systems, air conditioning systems, cars, household appliances. Pairing media studies and literary studies, Emerson appropriately makes clear her and our indebtedness to Marshall McLuhan, famous for “the medium is the message” (xx). “Marvelous,” along with “magical,” characterize Apple’s marketing rhetoric about the iPad, and immediately brought to mind Elizabeth Bishop’s “It is marvellous to wake up together.” Indeed, Reading Writing Interfaces is Emerson’s wake-up call for us to be mindful of how mechanisms act upon us and of the fact that interfaces both enable unprecedented [End Page 99] access to data and shape our choices about how that information might be used: “a passive acceptance of these algorithms necessarily means we cannot have a sense of the shape and scope of how they determine our access to information, let alone shape our sense of self, which is increasingly driven by autocomplete, autocorrect, automata” (164–65).

From the Acknowledgments sometimes using twitter handles to thank readers for feedback during the writing process to its reverse chronological order recounting textual interface histories (note the subtitle “From the Digital to the Bookbound”), readers know that this book interfaces differently in both anticipated and unexpected ways, encouraging readers to expect surprise in the familiar format of the chapter-delineated bibliographic machine we all know how to operate. An astute digital archaeologist who introduces readers not as steeped in digital studies to key terms and to evolutions in the last several decades of personal computing (introduction and first chapter), Emerson provides a highly intelligible guide to these profound shifts in textual receptions and productions, as well as to negotiations of everyday life that rely on computers though we may not be aware of and/or take for granted their quotidian ubiquity. Doing so, she explicates how interfaces are consciously designed to make their programming operations disappear so that they are encountered seamlessly by common users.

Readers unfamiliar with the acronyms GUI (Graphic User Interface), Fluid UI, OUI (Organic UI), NUI (Natural UI), and with terms such as ubicomp (ubiquitous computing) or even the more familiar phrase black boxing will find this an accessible, clear introduction to computing lingo and an incisive overview of the effects of personal and corporate computing that pervade our worlds. Consider your smartphone interface, a child of windows, in which icons mask the complex computing at the tip of your fingers, just as do the icons on your pc screen. Early adopters of word processing will remember the command line engagements to start Word Perfect (Alt-F3 would reveal codes) and even earlier adopters might recall Kaypro IIs or Osborne and the CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers) interface rendering computing visible to users who had to use them to perform any task. With the advent of graphic interfaces, in which an icon only needs to be clicked to perform a task, the need to enter commands was disappeared. About this “ideology of the user-friendly,” Emerson aptly calls for greater self-consciousness about choices already made for users in this more easily negotiable environment.

In calling for more conscious engagements with the digital world, Emerson also calls for a more self-consciously aware engagement with our literary world, which in turn helps the reader more acutely apprehend/read the digital: she calls [End Page 100] for a dynamic reading from the present forward and then backward in order to reread, proposing that back to the future is simultaneously forward to the past. The temporal disruption that organizes the book itself, which begins with analytical reflections...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 99-103
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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