Reading Machine: Context, Explanation, and Credits
Craig Saper [csaper at cfl dot rr dot com]


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 archaic form as the only oracular means we know for carrying the word mystically to the eye. "A simple reading machine which I can carry or move around, attach to any old electric light plug and read hundred thousand word novels if I want to, and I want to." 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.
-- Bob Brown, 1929

The reading machines on this website allude to Bob Carlton Brown's machine proposed, in one iteration, in 1929. He called the texts prepared for the machine Readies. The texts running through the machines on this website include some of the Readies produced for Brown's machine by modernist poets and writers. Some of the Readies presented technical problems for our production team either because of the layout of the poems or, usually, because of unusual ding-bats. We include those other Readies elsewhere on the website, but they do not run through the machines. Perhaps, later iterations will include those important Readies. We invite suggestions and discussion, on how to best include those excluded Readies, from literary and media scholars as well as interface designers and engineers.

This project was begun to supplement a biography I wrote on Bob Brown. Beyond a biographical study, my book uses Brown's work and life as a way to think about databases, interfaces, and mechanized procedures as alternatives to the dominant processing technologies and procedures.

The research examines the systems and procedures developed by Robert Carlton Brown (1886-1959) in three of his works produced in the late 1920s and early 1930s: Readies; Gems; and, Words. Brown called the prepared text for his machine readies, and the readies' style sought to respond directly to the changes in the material conditions of the mechanized books or reading machines appearing at that time. Until recently, scholars of the literary and artistic avant-garde remember Bob Brown for his visual poem, "Eyes," that appeared in Marcel Duchamp's Blindman (1917). Because of his activities as a publisher of experimental poetry and his proposed production of a "reading machine," Brown has recently gained a reputation among a growing group of scholars, and poets, studying literary Modernism. From 1927 through 1931, Brown published six volumes of visual and experimental poetry. In the 1950s, he became an eminence grise of experimental and Beat poets and published recollections of a few of his avant-garde activities in Bern Porter's influential newspaper-format poetry journal Berkeley: a Journal of Modern Culture.

Bob Brown described throughout his career how the circumstances of publishing (e.g., small press, pulp magazines, Hollywood story treatments, and the design of the texts) each had unique and important lessons about how to distribute and design texts. His reading machine and readies, for example, sought to highlight his fascinations with technologies of reading especially three relatively new technologies in the first quarter of the twentieth-century: ticker-tape machines, the prospect of a microfiche machine, and the dream of sending out books over the air-waves. The machine required Brown to process, and prepare, texts for his machine.

I argue that Brown's biography from pulp writer to book dealer via avant-garde artist, radical organizer, and cookbook author form the grist and frame for his literal reading machine. The sociopoetics of the machine examines how various types of writing in the last hundred years have a link to specific media technologies and mechanized procedures. From the story of the reading machine, I also argue that experiments in media technology and electracy have a lineage and a model for future work.

Brown's explicit directions ask future readers to take advantage of new media technologies. In that sense, his work might offer a way to think differently about word processing and new media. Brown's reading machine sought to "unroll a televistic readie film" following changes in reading practices during the first quarter of the twentieth-century. Gertrude Stein understood that Brown's reading machine, as well as his processed texts for his machine, suggested a shift toward a different way to comprehend texts. That is, the mechanism challenges scholars to think about the mechanisms of reading practices -- allowing participants to see reading as if unfamiliar.

Jerome McGann's Black Riders and extended readings in Craig Dworkin's Reading the Illegible, and in articles by Michael North, offer the first new analyses of Brown's experimental poetry and readies. Jerome Rothenberg's Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant Garde Poetry, 1914-1945 and Steve McCaffery's & Jed Rasula's Imagining Language: An Anthology include examples of his experimental poems and manifestoes. I have translated, with Cyriaco Lopez, a short introductory essay (and translation), by Augusto deCampos, the founder of the International Concrete Poetry Movement. Michael North's Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word includes the most elaborated reading of Brown's reading machine in relation to a general interest among modernist poets to embrace the photographic and filmic.

When our production team began, we thought the project would take one week to implement one example of a reading machine; instead it took 20 weeks, a dozen iterations of the machines (a handful included here on this website), and hundreds of hours preparing the readies for the machines the production team was able to produce.

We are also grateful to Michael North and Jessica Pressman for looking at an early iteration of our machine, and for showing us their own versions of reading machines both using a readie by William Carlos Williams. When I returned from meeting Professor North at UCLA, we used his constructive criticism of the early machine as a guide for all the subsequent iterations of the machine. He told me that the computer was the machine; so, we did not need to draw a picture of a machine in the machine. The machine should scroll the text. Finally, unlike Simon Morris, the publisher and artist, who I had consulted with about the machine a few years ago, North and Pressman both thought I should model my machine closely on Brown's readies and machine. Morris thought the machine we built should look to Brown for inspiration, but not modeled closely on the readies. I also consulted with N. Katherine Hayles, during the same research trip to UCLA, and she started our meeting by asking the key question:

Did Bob Brown build the reading machine or just imagine it?

My answer was that the evidence of the works he produced for a reading machine and his patent proposals for the machine make the answer ambiguous. Was it analogous to a ticker-tape machine or a micro-fiche machine? There is evidence for both, and perhaps some combination of the two types of reading machines. It also makes building an actual machine a challenge perhaps an impossible challenge a challenge of making a representation, an analogy, a metaphor for a provocation meant to unsettle our facile received ideas about reading.

The primary reason for my trip to UCLA was to research Brown's papers at the archive, and the archivist Simon Elliott was very helpful in making that research productive. I also visited MoMA in NYC for another aspect of the Bob Brown biography and the Sackner Archive in Miami as well.

The reading machine project at the University of Central Florida was funded by a generous grant from the College of Arts and Humanities Research Fund by Dean Jose Fernandez and administered by the Dean of Research in CAH, Paul Lartronoix. It was supported by Bruce Janz and Mark Kamrath at the Center for the Humanities and Digital Research, and Theo Lotz, the Director of the Art Gallery. The team consisted of Tzywei Cheng, the lead interface designer, Xinli Geng, consulting interface designer, Wieslaw Piontczak, also consulting interface designer and database expert, Jennifer Flynn, graduate research assistant, Patrick Hayes, honors undergraduate research assistant, Skott Bechara, consulting honors undergraduate researcher, and Douglas Dunlop, Meta-Data Librarian.

As we completed this project as well as the biography, I contacted the heirs of Bob Brown. We have been in contact regularly since March of 2008. They are working on their own projects about Brown including a documentary film and re-publication of some of his works. I am grateful for their help, permissions, and enthusiasm. There are five great grandchildren.

Although the iterations are numbered, the last two iterations, numbered 3 and 4, are both the culmination of all the other experiments. The 4th iteration has all the texts run in a linear line through the machine. The effect we wanted to produce works best in that iteration, but it does not allow for the non-linear jumping to a particular readie or author's works, and because it always begins with the first readie we were able to use, it tends to favor that particular readie rather than some of the more interesting or accomplished readies in the collection. The 3rd iteration does a better job of choosing a particular Readie and seeing the effect of that particular Readie as it runs through the machine. Unfortunately, it does not keep the title and author's name in the selection window, continues to loop the individual readie, and the two segements get out of synchronization -- thus defeating the illusion we hoped our machine would create.

If one wants to study the poetic effects of a particular readie, then iteration 3 will suffice. The project is on-going, and eventually we hope to solve the technical problems in iteration 3, and that would become iteration 5. We also have a large stack of iterations that we have not posted here.

The problems of each iteration became in the research about Bob Brown and his machine as valuable for their failures as their successes. The problems provoked important questions about both Brown's machine and about the mechanisms of reading in general. For example, at high speeds text seems to reverse direction suggesting an animation-effect to reading. This machine continues to teach and provoke the users. We hope that you will join in the conversation about the machine and its value in appreciating a moment in literary and artistic history.


Craig Saper

csaper at cfl dot rr dot com