12 April 10 | Chad W. Post

Jennifer Schuessler has a really fun and interesting article in this week’s New York Times Book Review about Bob Brown, the Godfather of the E-Reader:

Brown is perhaps best remembered for The Readies, a 1930 manifesto blending the fervor of the Futurists with the playfulness of Jules Verne. “The written word hasn’t kept up with the age,” Brown declared in the first line. “The movies have outmaneuvered it. We have the talkies, but as yet no Readies.” Enough with the tyranny of paper and ink! “Writing has been bottled up in books since the start,” Brown wrote. “It is time to pull out the stopper” and begin “a bloody revolution of the word.”

Brown’s weapon of choice was not ideological but mechanical. “To continue reading at today’s speed, I must have a machine,” he wrote. “A simple reading machine which I can carry or move around, attach to any old electric light plug and read hundred-thousand-word novels in 10 minutes if I want to, and I want to.” The machine he described, in which a ribbon of miniaturized text would scroll behind a magnifying glass at a speed controlled by the reader, sounds a lot like microfilm, then in development. But its truest inspirations, Saper argues, lay in the ticker-tape machine and in modernist experiments like Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons,” which Brown first read as a young man while working as a stock trader and hanging out with poets. In 1931, after word of his machine spread, he published “Readies for Bob Brown’s Machine,” an anthology of experimental texts sent to him by Stein, Marinetti, Pound and others.

There’s actually an online demonstration of the machine, which is, not surprisingly, a bit difficult to use. (Or maybe it just takes some getting used to. Maybe.)

Her whole piece is really interesting, and I love these old-school mechanical reading devices. Reminds me of Julio Cortazar’s contraption for reading Hopscotch which features a dentist’s chair (or maybe a shrink’s couch) and an intricate series of little card catalog boxes containing each of the chapters from the novel. The mechanistic trick being that as you close one drawer, the next chapter to read pops out for you. (For anyone unfamiliar with Hopscotch quit reading this pointless blog and go buy a copy. Take a week off work. Whatever. And you’ll quickly find out how this book skips from chapter to chapter is a semi-achronological way . . .)


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