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Dead medium: "The Readies"
From: From:
bruces@well.com (Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): In transition, A Paris Anthology: Writing and Art from transition Magazine 1927-1930 Anchor Books, Doubleday 1990 ISBN 0-385-41161-8

(((The following article originally appeared in the literary avant-garde magazine *transition* in 1930. While the article was clearly satirical in intent, many of its insights seem strikingly prescient in describing the future characteristics of electronic text on the Internet. "The Readies" remain an imaginary medium, but this is one of the few works of science fiction to examine the technological basis of literature, the medium of print -- bruces)))

"The Readies" by Bob Brown

The word "Readies" suggests to me a moving type spectacle, reading at the speed rate of the day with the aid of a machine, a method of enjoying literature in a manner as up-to-date as the lively talkies. In selecting "The Readies" as title for what I have to say about modern reading and writing I hope to catch the reader in a receptive progressive mood, I ask him to forget for a moment the existing medievalism of the BOOK (God bless it, it's staggering on its last leg and about to fall) as a conveyor of reading matter, I request the reader to fix his mental eye for a moment on the ever-present future and contemplate a reading machine which will revitalize this interest in the Optical Art of Writing.

In our aeroplane age radio is rushing in television, tomorrow it will be a commonplace. All the arts are having their faces lifted, painting (the moderns), sculpture (Brancusi), music (Antheil), architecture (zoning law), drama (Strange Interlude), dancing (just look around you tonight) writing (Joyce, Stein, Cumming, Hemingway, transition). Only the reading half of Literature lags behind, stays old-fashioned, frumpish, beskirted. Present-day reading methods are as cumbersome as they were in the time of Caxton and Jimmy-the-Ink. Though we have advanced from Gutenberg's movable type through the linotype and monotype to photo-composing we still consult the book in its original form as the only oracular means we know for carrying the word mystically to the eye. Writing has been bottled up in books since the start. It is time to pull out the stopper.

To continue reading at today's speed I must have a machine. A simple reading machine which I can carry or move around and attach to any old electric light plug and read hundred thousand word novels in ten minutes if I want to, and I want to. A machine as handy as a portable phonograph, typewriter or radio, compact, minute, operated by electricity, the printing done microscopically by the new photographic process on a transparent tough tissue roll which carries the contents of a book and is no bigger than a typewriter ribbon, a roll like a miniature serpentine that can be put in a pill box. This reading film unrolls beneath a narrow magnifying glass four or five inches long set in a reading slit, the glass brings up the otherwise unreadable type to comfortable reading size, and the reader is rid at last of the cumbersome book, the inconvenience of holding its bulk, turning its pages, keeping them clean, jiggling his weary eyes back and forth in the awkward pursuit of words from the upper left hand corner to the lower right, all over the vast confusing reading surface of a page.

Extracting the dainty reading roll from its pill box the reader slips it smoothly into its slot in the machine, sets the speed regulator, turns on the electric current and the whole, 100,000; 200,000; 300,000 or million words, spills out before his eyes and rolls on restfully or restlessly as he wills, in one continuous line of type, its meaning accelerated by the natural celerity of the eye and mind (which today are quicker than the hand); one moving line of type before the eye, not blurred by the presence of lines above and below as they are confusingly placed on a columned page.

My machine is equipped with controls so the reading record can be turned back or shot ahead, a chapter reread or the happy ending anticipated. The magnifying glass is so set that it can be moved nearer to or farther from the type, so the reader may browse in 6 points, 8, 10, 12, 16 or any size that suits him. Many books remain unread today owing to the unsuitable size of type in which they are printed. A number of readers cannot stand the strain of small type and other intellectual prowlers are offended by Great Primer. The reading machine allows free choice in type-point, it is not a fixed arbitrary bound object but an adaptable carrier of flexible, flowing reading matter. Master-compositors have impressed upon apprentices for years that there is no rubber type. Well, now that the reading machine exists with strong glass to expand to contract the size of letters, compositors can't ding on that any more.

The machine is equipped with all modern improvements. By pressing a button the roll slows down so an interesting part may be read leisurely, over and over again if need be, or by speeding up, a dozen books can be skimmed through in an afternoon without soiling the fingers or losing a dust wrapper. Taken in high gear ordinary literature may be absorbed at the rate of full length novels in half hours or great pieces of writing may be re- read in half-lifetimes. The underlying principle of reading remains unaffected, merely its scope is enlarged and its latent possibilities pointed.

To save the labor of changing rolls or records, a clip of a dozen assorted may be put in at a time and automatically fed to the machine as phonograph discs are changed at present. The Book of the Day or Book of the Hour Club could sell it output in clips of a dozen ready to slip into the reading machine. Maybe a book club called the Dozen a Day would result. Reading by machinery will be as simple and painless as shaving with a Schick razor and refills could be had at corner drug stores or telephone booths from dawn to midnight.

(...)

Already we are familiar with news and advertisements reeeling off before our eye in huge illuminated letters from the tops of corner buildings, and smaller propaganda machines tick off tales of commercial prowess before our eyes in shop windows. All that is needed is to bring the electric street signs down to the ground, move the show- window reading device into the library by reducing the size of the letter photographically and refining it to the need of an intimate, handy, rapid reading conveyor.

(...)

The accumulating pressure of reading and writing alone will budge type into motion, force it to flow over the column, off the page, out of the book where it has snoozed in apathetic contentment for half a thousand years. The only apparent change the amateur reader may bemoan is that he cannot fall asleep as promptly before a spinning reading roll as he can over a droning book in his lap, but again necessity may come to the rescue with a radio attachment which will shut off the current and automatically stop the type-flow on receipt of the first sensitive vibration of a snore.

(...)

My reading machine will serve as a wedge. Makers of words will be born; fresh, vital eye-words will wink out of dull, dismal, drooling type at startled smug readers. New methods crave new matter; conventional world- prejudices will be automatically overcome, from necessity reading-writing will spring full blown into being. The Revolution of the Word will be won. Reading-writing will be produced not so much for its sonorific sleep-producing qualities as its mental-eye-provoking pleasures.

(...)

Let's let writing out of books, give it a chance and see what it does with its liberty. Maybe there are butterflies in the core of those cloth-cased cocoons stacked away in libraries. Let's let them out and have a look. With reading words freely conveyed maybe books will become as rare as horses after the advent of the auto, perhaps they will be maintained only for personal pleasure or traditional show, as the gorgeously-trapped brew-steeds of Munich.

Let's look for literary renaissance through the Readie; a modern, moving, word spectacle. Let's have a new reading medium in time with our day, so that industrious delvers in the Word-Pile may be rapidly read and quickly understood by their own generation at least.

The Readies are no more unusual than the Talkies, and not a scratch on television. As soon as the reading machine becomes a necessity it will be out of date. Pocket reading machines will be the vogue then; reading matter probably will be radioed and words recorded directly on the palpitating ether. But the endless imaginative possibilities of the new medium need not lead us astray. The low-brows are presently revelling in their Movies and Talkies while the almost extinct high-brow is content to sit at home sipping his thin alphabet soup out of archaic volumes of columns, mewling a little like a puling baby taking much from the tip of an awkward wooden spoon (...)

Those Mental Obfuscates who can't make out the Readies on the dim literary horizon of the day will be the first to accept that as a commonplace tomorrow and they will be the loudest in grumbling if anything happens to the Readie mechanism to interrupt the eager optical word-flow as for as much as a *billimeter-augenblick.*

Bob Brown, June 1930