Upcoming Talk: “Interfacing with Modernism: Reading Machines and Haptic Storage”

I’m looking forward to presenting on my chapter-in-progress at this year’s Transcriptions Center Research Slam.


This project considers how the emergence of the reading interface—in particular, that of the microfilm reader—converged with modernist literary concerns about representation, materiality, and the tactile nature of books.

I focus on Bob Brown’s reading machine, a microfilm-reader-like device that he hoped would drastically alter the experience of reading.  With Brown’s machine, text would be stored on a tape that would spool under a magnifying section.  While the reader could adjust the speed and direction of the text’s movement, a major consequence was that the reading experience was focused almost entirely upon the eye; tactile interaction with the surface of inscription was largely precluded.

I take Brown’s Readies machine as paradigmatic of larger concerns within modernist culture about the increasing de-emphasis on the material body of the book.  As a counterpoint, I look at theories of preservation and representation in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.  Much of the novel centers around the quest for perfect representation—both in how Orlando’s mind and soul might coincide with a particular gendered body and in how the Oak Tree might be best represented in Orlando’s poetry.  Literary representation, code, and photography all vie in the novel as storage forms.  Yet I suggest that Woolf offers another significant form of storage in the tattered prayer book that Orlando carries.  In its ‘haptic storage’ (the preservation of the impression and the trace), the book becomes a singular type of storage medium precisely because of the tactility of its writing surface—because there is no interface to intervene between the user and the site of inscription.”

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