One of the most famous page layouts in The Medium is the Massage displays the thumbs of a reader –Quentin Fiore? the male model depicted elsewhere in Peter Moore’s photo shoot?– holding the volume open to a page spread that reads THE BOOK. The gesture is self-reflexive, like much else in The Medium is the Massage. In order to “read” this page, the reader has to mime the gesture and press back against the edges of the opposing pages of the perfect-bound original paperback.  The script is one that readers have internalized and naturalized over the course of centuries of print culture: thumbs are cast in the lead role as the holding and navigation system for tightly bound bundles of print. Whereas other fingers can play roles in paging forward or backward, the thumb anchors the physical act of reading. Two thumbs and hands are required. A single thumb could serve as a placeholder but not a reading device.

This script has a number of presuppositions built into it that triumph in the modern era of printing. The first is one of scale: the book must exist on certain physical scale, assume a certain shape, and possess certain physical characteristics in order to be “thumbable.” Most medieval codices and early modern books were too large or unwieldy to invite any such activation of the thumbs (however gradual or slow-paced). Like contemporary coffee table books, their weight and size invited other sorts of manual maneuvers, not to mention giving rise to an arsenal of support devices like lecterns, desks, markers, and weights. A significant exception were Books of Hours, the most popular category of devotional books produced between the 12th and the 16th century: works that were surely read much as the reader of The Medium is the Massage “reads” the first electric information age book. Other presuppositions include: a tight binding that requires pressure to hold  a page spread open; a certain range of rigidity and pliability in the page support; a vertical format (a too horizontal book format will produce too much flex).

The rise of mobile devices has given rise to a new digitality in the double sense of the word.

On the one hand, thumbing has become a single-handed operation, carried out at a hyperactive pace that would be improbable if one were performing a print artifact. The operation is restricted to smaller mobile devices such as smart phones and mini-tablets. On the other, swiping with index and middle fingers prevails on larger devices and readers like the iPad and the Sony e-Readers, though with significant variants:  the Kindle has buttons and the Nook invites index-finger taps. All these operations are asymmetrical. They do not imply a balance between right and left. No tension structure (like a binding and page span) bridges the gap between left and right. The device is rigid and relatively thin so as to allow for single-handed holding or lap-top use.  Is there a role for the unused hand within this asymmetrical performance of reading operations? Does one really “read” in any ordinary sense of the term given the cognitive pace and the prevalence of non-linear page scanning on the part of many users? Is the true model for swiping the machine reading of credit cards and smart id’s? Continuities in language have a way of covering and smoothing over cognitive and cultural shifts.

- March 3, 2012