A. S. Byatt's Possession opens with a decrepit copy of Vico, "thick and black and covered with dust" (3). It's a novel very much preoccupied with the tactile qualities of both reading and scholarship more generally--the past as materialized in books and manuscripts that bear the traces of their age and their authorship. Most of us, I imagine, can come up with real-life equivalents: the nineteenth-century quarterly journal that crumbles as you touch it; the novel with a spine so fragile that it can barely be opened; the children's book pitted with the force of its owner's distracted doodles. E-readers certainly don't lend themselves to this kind of experience. The e-reader is, if nothing else, clean (unless, of course, you drop your bagel on it). But the e-reader also seems to eliminate the need to be conscious of the book as a book. Or does it? Andrew Piper argues that with the rise of the touch screen, "[t]he more my body does [...] the less my mind does. Interactivity is a constraint, not a freedom. Swiping has the effect of making everything on the page cognitively lighter, less resistant." Close attention to the words on the page gives way to "[s]kimming"; indeed, he no longer feels the "rapture of anticipation" that comes from the momentary hitch as one turns the page.
Much of this argument clearly develops from Piper's Dreaming in Books, which dwells at some length on the materiality of reading (especially the figure of the hand, which features prominently in this excerpt). But I'm puzzled by the historical narrative, in which the shift from codex to e-reader promotes "skimming"; arguably, promoting skimming (or otherwise speeding up one's encounter with the text) has been an important aspect of publishing since at least the eighteenth century, what with the rise of "elegant extracts," "beauties," "wisdom," and other anthologies of decontextualized excerpts, along with abridgements. (Leah Price's first book is, among other things, about the problems posed by such forms.) Such things, glumly opined one reviewer, were "calculated to promote carelessness and indolence in the majority of readers, who by skimming over in this manner the surface of a great work, persuade themselves that they are masters of the subject." Even more importantly, the self-enclosed codex was sometimes thought to promote skimming. In 1799, James Anderson argued that reading via periodical (that is, serially) had been better for his mind than reading books: young people "become tired of the place they are at; and, impatient to get forward, they turn over the leaves to see what else the book contains; and never can fix their minds so as to read with attention." (Ironically, Anderson is arguing for the superiority of an essentially "open" text, which is precisely what Piper finds unsettling about the "weak sense of closure" in e-books .) Arbiters of the nineteenth-century literary scene appeared to be under the impression that everyone was flitting along the textual surface, not least because novels were now everywhere (and responsible for wrecking the reader's ability to concentrate on anything valuable). Indeed, I suspect one could argue that most readers have skimmed since the spread of silent reading. Piper focuses on the body in reading, but skimming is far more difficult if every word must be vocalized...
In other words, Piper offers a narrative--from deep reading to skimming--that, as excerpted, both replays quite old decline-and-fall stories about reading practices, and draws a one-to-one connection between materiality and attentive reading that might have bemused someone like Anderson. His larger anxieties about the seeming nowhereness of e-books--"Unlike books, we cannot feel the impressions of the digital"--echo more practical concerns raised by bibliographers and historians of the book, who have pointed out that one may well miss a lot (about paper quality, bindings, and so forth) simply by looking at the digitized version. However, Piper is not interested in anything quite so technical. Rather, he insists that there is something about "swiping," as in the swiping I was doing while reading a Kindle version of this today, that runs counter to the codex experience. Here, he links swiping to "speed-reading," which, as someone who reads fairly quickly (my comfortable speed is about 100 pages/hr), I found a little baffling: it's not clear who he's citing (the Nielsen study, which has been critiqued, contradicts his position, as does a more recent study [PDF PowerPoint] by Paul Harris), and reading quickly does not equate to skimming. My own anecdotal experience, as I said in an earlier post, has been that Kindle formats, however accessed, have no positive or negative effect on my average march through any text.
But, to return to physicality, I've also found that using an iPad or Kindle has had little effect on how I move my body. Is swiping really all that much different from turning the page, even if there's no physical page to turn? If I read in bed, I still have to adopt the same pose; if I read while noshing on my bagel at the local coffee shop, the iPad lies where the book would be. (There's far more physical constraint in using GoogleBooks on my computer--I'm stuck sitting upright at the desk, with optional cat wandering in front of the screen.) A professor of mine at UCI used to joke about the dangers to life and limb posed by the Norton Anthology: not only does it cause permanent backstrain, but it's also likely to produce a concussion if you make the mistake of dozing off while holding it up in bed. The iPad, while lighter, has its own set of risks, many of them to the machine itself. (Watch out for that Coca-Cola!) I think that what we may be seeing is, at most, the readjustment of certain reading practices alongside others, and not some sort of rupture.
 It seems to me that, at this phase in their development, many e-books are not, in fact, particularly "open"--certainly not on Kindle, where any links in the book simply take you to a footnote or chapter. Piper's examples are mostly taken from experimental or art e-texts, which are a different can of worms.