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Robert Carlton Brown, The Readies

In 1930 avant-garde writer Bob Brown published an essay in the international avant-garde journal transition (edited by Eugene Jolas) calling for a new reading machine to push literature to keep up with the advanced reading practices of a cinema-viewing public and thereby produce the “Revolution of the Word.” In this essay, published a year later in a stand-alone publication, Brown boldly proclaimed

The written word hasn’t kept up with the age. The movies have outmanoeuvered it. We have the talkies, but as yet no Readies. I’m for new methods of reading and writing and I believe the up-to-date reader deserves an eye-ful when he buys something to read. I think the optical end of the written word has been hidden over a bushel too long. I’m out for a bloody revolution of the word (1).


Books are antiquated word containers…. modern word-conveyors are needed now, reading will have to be done by machine (13).

(The Readies [Bad Ems: Roving Eye Press, 1930], UCLA Special Collections).
Following the publication of the essay, Brown published a collection of short works inspired by and supposedly created for the machine. Readies for Bob Brown’s Machine (Cagnes-sur-Mer: Roving Eye Press, 1931) included poems by Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Filippo Marinetti. Jerome McGann describes the importance of this anthology to literary history: “When the afterhistory of modernism is written, this collection… will be recognized as a work of signal importance” (Black Riders 89).

Brown never succeeded in building the Readies machine. But his personal letters show that he was indeed serious about his ambitions, going so far as to solicit technical and legal assistance in constructing the machine and acquiring a copyright for it (see letters to the National Machine Products Company dated 1930-1932 and to attorney Ernest W. Bradford dated 1932).

More of a poet than an engineer, Brown’s technical plans for the Readies machine remain ambiguous. It is clear, however, that he wanted to use the technology of cinema (spooling celluloid) to make words flash quickly in front of the reader’s steady eyes. Brown describes the Readies as composed of “microscopic type on a moveable tape running beneath a slot equipped with a magnifying glass and brought up to life size before the reader’s birdlike eye, saving white space, making words more moving, out-distancing the flatulent winded ones and bringing the moment brightly to us” (The Readies 13).

His description of the machine resonates with the experience of reading microfiche or, to make a more contemporary analogy, the experience of reading some works of digital literature built in Flash.

Brown conceived of the Readies as a reader-controlled medium for reading text. He wanted to give the reader control over the speed and pace of her reading experience and saw a mobile, electric machine as the best possible option for doing so:

To continue reading today at today’s speed I must have a machine. A simple reading machine which I can carry or move around, attached to any old electric light plug and read hundred thousand word novels in ten minutes if I wanted to, and I want to (The Readies 28).
My machine is equipped with controls so that the reading record can be turned back or shot ahead, a chapter reread or the happy ending anticipated (The Readies 29).

His description of the ability to alter text size (30) and speed up the reading pace resonates with contemporary computer-based reading experiences. His essay also implies an understanding of the economic effects of this machine on the publishing industry and, thus, the larger institutions involved in the process and practices of reading:

With the present speeding up of publishing a machine is needed to handle the bulk and cut down the quantity of paper, ink, binding, and manual labor now wasted getting out twentieth century reading matter in fifteenth century book form (31)

Research Context:
The Readies was never realized, and perhaps was nothing more than a poet’s machinic daydream, but it is indeed relevant to the contemporary study of reading practices primarily because it anticipates and articulates many of the claims and challenges currently under discussion due to the impact of the computer. Specifically, the Readies can be contextualized in discussions about the relationship between reading technologies and texts, the evolution of media and media-based arts, and the aesthetic experience of reading.

Technical Analysis:
Since the Readies was never built and its technical specificities remain more poetic than technically precise. Indeed, little has been written on Brown or the Readies (besides an article by modernist scholar Michael North and a brief mention by critic Jerome McGann). Brown was nearly forgotten by history, becoming a footnote in the history of the avant-garde (as a concrete poet) and film studies (because his first novel What Happened to Mary [1913] was made into the first serialized film).

Brown’s papers are currently in the process of being arranged and organized by UCLA Special Collections.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:
The Readies is relevant to the Transliteracies project less as a technical “object” than as a theoretical and artistic one. Brown’s plans for the Readies as a reading medium and his conception of their relevance for propelling contemporary literature provide an early and insightful discussion of many of the issues of interest to current discussions of electronic textuality and reading practices.

Far before such media theorists as Friedrich Kittler, Katherine Hayles, and Lisa Gittleman described the relationships between reading technologies and the texts we read, Bob Brown identified this relationship to be deeply interdependent and inextricable. His plans for the Readies expose and depend upon the relationship between technology and literature to be a functioning feedback loop wherein revolutionizing reading practices in turn revolutionize the kind of literature read through them: “Revolutionize reading and a Revolution of the Word will be inkless achieved” (35).

The Readies is also relevant to recent theories about media evolution and “remediation” (to use Bolter and Grusin’s term), for it is a project that conceives of itself as pursuing a medium-based approach to pushing literature to keep up with its sibling art forms:

In our aeroplane age radio is rushing in television, tomorrow it will be commonplace. All the arts have are having their faces lifted, painting (Picasso), sculpture (Brancussi), music (Antheil), architecture (zoning law), drama (Strange Interlude), dancing (just look around you tonight), writing (Joyce, Stein, Cummings, Hemingway). 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. Through we have advanced from Gutenberg’s moveable type through to linotype nod 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. Writing has been bottled up in books since the start. It is time to pull out the stopper. (28)

Before the popularity of scholarly studies of the book or reading technologies, Brown identified the codex as a historically-specific reading technology, and one whose usefulness had ended:

forget for the moment the existing medievalism of the BOOK (God bless it, it’s staggering on its last leg and about to fall) as a conveyor or reading matter. I request the reader to fix his mental eye for the moment on the ever-present future and contemplate a reading machine which will revitalize his interest in the Optical Art of Writing (27).

His tone prophetically anticipates such early rhetoric about electronic literature and hypertext as exemplified by Robert Coover’s “The End of Books” (New York Times Book Review, 1992). He also anticipates the primary complaints of readers of digital literature and information:

The only apparent change the amateur reader may bemoan is that he might not fall asleep as promptly before a spinning reading roll as over a droning book in his lap… (35)

For all of these reasons, the Readies apply to a variety of research interests and contexts in the study of technologically-informed reading practices. Although he focuses more on Brown’s concrete poetry that he effort to build the Readies, Jerome McGann’s estimation of Brown is a useful description:

The visual tradition’s most important modernist practitioner and theorist, however, was Robert Carlton (‘Bob’) Brown–that strange and arresting American, now academically forgotten, whose work culminates the extraordinary tradition of modern experimentalist writing (Black Riders 84).

Resources for Further Study:

  • Brown, Bob. Letters. Folder titled “Reading Machine.” UCLA Special Collections.
  • ——. Readies for Bob Brown’s Machine. Cagnes-sur-Mer: Roving Eye Press, 1931. UCLA Special Collections.
  • ——. The Readies. Bad Ems: Roving Eye Press, 1930.
  • ——. “The Readies.” transition, no. 19-20, 1930.
  • ——. “The Readies.” Imagining Language: An Anthology. Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery, eds. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1998.
  • ——. “The Readies” (excerpts). The Dead Media Project (online).

Additional Reading on Brown:

  • Fitch, Noel Riley and Samuel Beckett, eds. In transition, A Paris Anthology: Writing and Art from transition Magazine 1927-1930. New York: Anchor Books, 1990.
  • McGann, Jerome. Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. See chapter two.
  • North, Michael. “Words in Motion: The Movies, the Readies, and ‘the Revolution of the Word’” in Modernism/Modernity, 9.2 (2002). A version of this article is also contained in North’s recent Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word(Oxford University Press, 2005); see chapter two, “transition: The Movies, the Readies, and the Revolution of the Word.”

  tl, 02.19.06

2 Responses to Robert Carlton Brown, The Readies

  1. eamonjbrown says:

    Hi Jessica, My name is Eamon Brown. Bob was my great-grandfather. I was interested to read your report. I am a graduating MFA student at the Rhode Island School of Design and have been interested in somehow reviving Bob’s work. I would love to put together a show of his original drawings from 1450-1950 along with other materials (letters, sketches, etc..) I spoke to a curator at The Drawing Center in New York some time ago and he showed interest. Unfortunately, my family has little to no materials of his. Do you know where those original drawings are? If you have any ideas or contacts please let me know.
    Thanks again,
    Eamon Brown

  2. eamonjbrown says:

    you can reach me at eamonjbrown@gmail.com, thanks again