In a Norwegian comedy sketch posted on YouTube, a fur-collared tech guy from a medieval “help desk” comes to the rescue of a monk confronted with a bewildering new machine, the book. Did you try to open it? the tech guy asks. Yes, says the monk, but I was afraid the words would disappear if I turned the page. Don’t worry, the tech guy reassures him. The only way the words will disappear is if you set the whole thing on fire.
The sketch is as anachronistic as it is funny. The codex has been the dominant text format since late antiquity, and the modern paperback — compact, portable, inexpensive, reasonably water-resistant — remains the most efficient reading machine ever invented. Still, the dream of a truly revolutionary reading device has been around since long before the Kindle or the iPad. And if you’re searching for a godfather of the reading machine, you might look past Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs to a nearly forgotten early-20th-century writer and impresario named Bob Brown.
Brown, born Robert Carlton Brown in Chicago in 1886, liked to say he had written in every genre imaginable: advertising, journalism, fiction, poetry, ethnography, screenwriting, even cookbooks. He wrote at least 1,000 pulp stories, some of which became the basis for “What Happened to Mary?,” the first movie serial, released in 1912. He was on the editorial board of the radical magazine The Masses before founding a successful business magazine in Brazil. He contributed to leading avant-garde journals and wrote, sometimes in collaboration with his wife and mother, some 30 popular books about food and drink, including “Let There Be Beer!” (published after the repeal of Prohibition) and “The Complete Book of Cheese.”
Brown was “the Zelig of the 20th-century avant-garde,” according to Craig Saper, a professor of texts and technology at the University of Central Florida who is writing a biography of him. Brown went everywhere and knew everyone: Marcel Duchamp, Eugene O’Neill, H. L. Mencken, Gertrude Stein, James T. Farrell, William Carlos Williams. His output was so varied and his life so far-flung — he boasted of having lived in 100 cities — that some library card catalogs list him as at least two different people.
But today, Brown is perhaps best remembered for THE READIES (Rice University, various formats and prices), 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.
Reading Brown’s manifesto, it’s hard not to recognize uncanny preludes to today’s claims that digitization will establish a new utopia of cheap books, downloadable from even the most obscure library while you’re waiting for the bus. (“The Readies” itself, previously available only to those who could afford one of the 150 original copies, was reissued last year by Rice University Press, which is now entirely a digital print-on-demand operation.) The machine, Brown argued, would allow readers to adjust the type size, avoid paper cuts and save trees, all while hastening the day when words could be “recorded directly on the palpitating ether.”
Was “The Readies” just an avant-garde stunt, or a real proposal? “The answer is ambiguous,” Saper said in a telephone interview, though Brown, then living in the South of France, did make some efforts to build his machine. He corresponded with Bradley A. Fiske, an admiral who had developed a handheld microfilm reader, and considered applying for a patent. A friend built a prototype. It did not survive, but a grainy photograph in “Readies for Bob Brown’s Machine” shows a wooden contraption that hardly embodies machine-age sleekness. As Saper put it, it looks a bit like a waffle iron.
Brown may have realized that the technologies that inspired his machine — ticker tape, World War I-era cryptography — were already out of date, Saper says. (The manifesto does include a fleeting reference to television, which was still highly experimental.) But the larger irony of Brown’s Readies is that they tend to be, well, unreadable. A sample text included at the end of the manifesto is a blizzard of hyphens, inserted between the words to convey the machine’s “movement,” further obscuring a stream-of-consciousness prose-poem that omits “little, useless” words like articles and conjunctions. (Roughly three-eighths of the words in most texts were superfluous, Brown insisted.) “Harry-virtuoso-born-musical-mid-midwest-mellow-mooing-farm-milky-mooey-farm. . . .” Forget waffle irons: this is a text that’s been pulverized by an industrial-strength Cuisinart.