What is the matter with matter?
A literary work consists, entirely or essentially, of a text, defined (very minimally) as a more or less long sequence of verbal statements that are more or less endowed with significance. But this text is rarely presented in an unadorned state, unreinforced and unaccompanied by a certain number of verbal or other productions, such as an author’s name, a title, a preface, illustrations. And although we do not always know whether these productions are to be regarded as belonging to the text, in any case they surround it and extend it, precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of this verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text’s presence in the world, its ‘reception’ and consumption in the form (nowadays, at least) of a book. These accompanying productions, which vary in extent and appearance, constitute what I have called elsewhere the work’s paratext. […] Accordingly, the paratext is what enables a text to become a book and to be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public. (1)
Note that ‘surface as materiality’ (which roughly corresponds to Gumbrecht and Pfeiffer’s ‘materialities of communication’) is only one of the six meanings of ‘surface reading’ that Best and Marcus discuss. In our course, we focus only on this type, i.e. surface reading as an approach to literary texts that takes account of their materiality: their physical surfaces, how they feel in our hands, how they smell. This is covered in the first half of the quote, where Best and Marcus single out the history of the book as one field where the materiality, the ‘thinginess’ of books is considered. In the second half of the quote, another, very different meaning of ‘materiality’ is evoked via Elaine Scarry, whose book ‘Dreaming by the Book’ inquires into how physical, material processes in our brains (think of neurons firing) enable readers of literary works to transform, in their minds, the textual surfaces of books into three-dimensional fictional universes in which they take imaginary strolls.Surface as materiality. This kind of surface emerges primarily in two forms − in the history of the book and in cognitive reading. Bibliography attends to the literal surfaces of books themselves, making signs inseparable from their material supports. Histories of reading, publication, and circulation study books as things that link their producers, sellers, and users. Cognitive studies of literature attend to the material workings of the brain during the reading process and show how writing prompts readers to imitate what Elaine Scarry calls ‘the material conditions’ that structure perception. (9)
Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. ‘Surface Reading: An Introduction.’ Representations 108.1 (2009): 1–21.
Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.
Scarry, Elaine. Dreaming by the Book. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Literature in the Digital Age: from Close Reading to Distant Reading
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