I almost always finish the books that I begin, but Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media has just become the latest exception.
I have written about this book in the past. I mentioned it first in a post on database as narrative limit and then again more recently in a post on the nature of the digital object, and I have been forcing myself to read it, in fits and starts between other things, for something like a year now. It was given to me by my friend Don Moore almost two years ago, and I made two or three ineffectual attempts to begin it before I really got started in the first place, so I feel that I have given it every opportunity to engage me. If it has failed to do so, I can now put it aside without any damage to my conscience.
My difficulty with the book has nothing to do with its argument. Though I do often find myself disagreeing with Manovich, I generally enjoy reading a position that challenges my own, so long as it is thoughtful and well articulated, which Manovich’s generally is. The trouble is that his writing is utterly lacking in style and rhetorical interest. Manovich may be intelligent, and he may be insightful, and he may offer an interestingly aesthetic approach to the question of how to understand new media, but he is an awful writer, period. His diction is painfully deliberate. His sentence structure is monotonous. His tone reminds me of nothing so much as the textual equivalent of any adult who happens to talk in a Peanuts cartoon. Every time I begin to read him I am seized by the insurmountable urge to read something, anything, else.
Perhaps the real problem, however, and I am willing to concede this in Manovich’s defense, is that I have been spoiled by the thinkers that I usually read. To read Jacques Derrida, for example, or Emmanuel Levinas, or Jean-Luc Marion, or Roland Barthes, or Ivan Illich, to name only a few of my favourites, is to be immersed in a aesthetic experience as well as an intellectual one. These writers attend as much to their language and to their style as they do their content, the one reinforcing the other. Perhaps it is only their virtuosity that has made Manovich so unendurable to me. I will admit the possibility. Even so, I am finished with Manovich.