Books and Bytes

November 20, 2007

Interesting article in the NEW YORKER today (that’s my reading of choice while I’m working out, for those of you who don’t know).  I’m actually making my way through the November 5th issue; my road trip to the South Carolina Writers Workshop and WFC made me fall a bit behind, although in truth, I’m never fully caught up with my NEW YORKERs.

Anyway, the article was called “Future Reading,” and it was written by Anthony Grafton, a history professor at Princeton.  Grafton was basically saying that despite predictions that Google Book Search and other similarly ambitious efforts by tech giants (eg. Microsoft and Amazon) to digitize the entire compendium of world literature, we’re a long way from seeing the Death of the Printed Word.  Instead, because of gaps caused by copyright issues, the West’s lack of knowledge about — or serious interest in — literature from other cultures, and bugs in the current scanning technologies, we are destined to wind up with something far less than the comprehensive universal library suggested by the hype surrounding these projects.  (Grafton makes a point of noting here — and I’ll do the same — that Google, Microsoft, and Amazon never made claims to match the hype.)  Rather, what we’ll end up with is a patchwork of literature with a powerful bias toward material produced in wealthier societies, most of them Western.  This is, of course, a cursory summation of a far more nuanced and interesting article.  I urge anyone interested in writing or reading to check it out.

One image from Grafton’s concluding paragraphs, though, struck me as being particularly and poignantly illustrative of the power of the printed word in its physical form.  The passage in question cited another work by a second historian, Paul Duguid.  To quote Grafton:

Duguid describes watching a fellow-historian systematically sniff two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old letters in an archive.  By detecting the smell of vinegar — which had been sprinkled, in the eighteenth century, on letters from towns struck by cholera, in the hope of disinfecting them — he could trace the history of the disease outbreaks.  (Grafton, Anthony, “Future Reading”, NEW YORKER, November 5, 2007, p. 54)

The point Grafton was making, the point I took away from his piece, was that something is lost in the digitizing of the written word.  Books, magazines, letters, documents of all sorts — they’re more than just collections of words.  They’re artifacts, and as such, their essence cannot be realized in full on a computer screen.  The medium in which the written word is presented, is, in and of itself, something to be studied and appreciated.

As someone who writes and loves books, I found Grafton’s article comforting.  I’m not fool enough to believe that my books will ever be treated as historical documents.  For one thing, though they have been said to stink, they have never smelled like vinegar.  I think those critics who questioned the quality of my work had an earthier scent in mind…. 

But I also believe that, like me, many people who love to read also love to hold their books in their hands.  Every day we spend more and more time in front of our computer screens, or reading text on our blackberries and cell phones.  Reading a book offers an excuse to get away from the technology, to do something that we did pretty much the same way when we were kids, or that our parents and grandparents did when they were kids.  And I’d like to think that if someone does go looking for my books, say fifty or a hundred years from now, that they’ll go to a library rather than to a digital archive.  I like to imagine them finding my book on a shelf somewhere.  Yeah, it’s a bit worn, maybe there’s some dust on it, and it smells musty.  But it’s a book nevertheless.  And they sit down on the library floor, or in a comfortable chair, or outside on the warm grass, and they start to read.  That’s how I want my books to be enjoyed.

Today’s music:  Darol Anger and Mike Marshall (Woodshop)

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9 Responses to “Books and Bytes”

  1. David:

    As you were writing this post, I was imagining some of the more positive effects of making books available in digital formats. At the same time, my mail carrier was delivering a box from Amazon containing two titles I look forward to reading in hard copy. When I heard the doorbell ring, I found him leaning over the fence to pet the neighbor’s dog.

    What’s wrong with these pictures? (laughing) I adore the unexpected.

  2. davidbcoe said

    Great images! Thanks, Robin. It was apparently a timely post. Amazon has just released a new electronic reader that everyone’s talking about over on LiveJournal, which is the other place where I post (same content as my blog here, but a more active community, so more comments. You should check it out).

  3. Kindle’s demo video makes it appear tempting, but for me it would be a foolish waste of money. I like free, which is my topic today. Furthermore, the scan quality of some of the texts available through Live Search Books is stunning, and you never know what a keyword or phrase will lead you to online.

  4. Tina Parker said

    A friend sent me a partial manuscript of 189 pages. I tried reading it on my computer screen but found that I wanted to hold it in my hands, feel the weight of text — literally and figuratively — and revel in a book. I printed it off… surely ink will be on sale soon.

    The net is a wonderful tool but it can’t ever replace going to bed with a good book. From a reader to an author, keep up the good work.

  5. davidbcoe said

    Thanks for the comment, Tina, and for the kind words. As you say, no one ever curled up with a nice computer….

  6. El Volgero said

    David, your post stirred so many emotions, that I really don’t know where to start. Unfortunately, the predominant feeling is sadness. It’s all so sad that everything is transient — even such a grand concept as the printed book. Speaking of smells, in my humble opinion, nothing compares to the smell of ink on paper, when you open a newly printed book for the first time. As an avid reader, the biggest part of the books I’ve read, either bought by my family or me, or borrowed from libraries, have been on paper. Lately, I’ve been reading on the computer screen — it saves a lot of space in my otherwise cramped apartment. You could say it’s more convenient. Eventhough the relation between producer and consumer is two-way — as consumers demand certain goods from the producer, just as much the producers impose certain goods on the consumers — the goods that survive the test of time are usually the convenient ones. It’s also sad that the generation that grows up is getting used to digital copies, and soon there’ll be nothing else. I don’t think that the printed book will survive this fight. It’s as doomed as the muskets that had been made obsolete by the faster reloading guns. I wanted to write something funny in the end, but this joke is also sad — Did you know that kids these days refuse to read books on paper, because there’s no search engine in the said books?

  7. davidbcoe said

    Thanks for the comment. I understand that feeling of sadness — nostalgia for something that’s not even gone yet can be very poignant. But I remain convinced that books will be around longer than you might think. People — consumers — are incredibly passionate about their books, and publishers respond to such things. And so — perhaps another reason for optimism — when books do go the way of the dodo, it will be because the new technology will have been truly perfected. Just my opinion.

    Again, thanks for leaving a comment.

  8. El Volgero said

    You’re welcome. I don’t comment often, because I don’t like one-liners, like “Yes, I feel the same way,” but I’ll be leaving here a few words now and then.

    As far as I can see, our only disagreement is about the definition of “soon.” Thinking less emotionally now, I see that my previous comment was quite a mess, so I’d like to make things a bit more clear. Let’s take a look at what happened with the vinyl records. I’m not sure if they’re still making them, but everywhere you turn, they’re selling only CDs. Not to mention the MP3s you can download directly to your player. And what about DVDs? Their life-span will be even shorter, because Blu-ray and HD will kick DVDs out of the market very soon.

    The Bible says that it took Moses 40 years to get his people from Egypt to Israel. This trip doesn’t take that many years, even on foot. You don’t need me to tell you why Moses needed these four decades. Basically, what I mean is that when our generation — the people who are sentimentally attached to printed books — is no longer around, there will be no further demand for books on paper. I think we can agree that this process will take about two, three, or four decades at the most. And, believe me, I really hope that I won’t be right about this.

  9. davidbcoe said

    I certainly see what you’re saying, and I think the analogy to records/CDs is valid, but only to a point. Like your musket analogy in your previous comment, the record/CD analogy comes down to technology. One becomes obsolete and the other takes over. Books are slightly different, in that there is no supporting technology needed for the original media.

    In other words, with records, you needed a turntable to keep them viable. With CDs you need the player to keep them viable. With muskets, you needed a specific type of ammo, availability of black powder, etc. to keep them viable (plus they loaded slower than the replacement technology, so the older tech was not only cumbersome, it was fatal — but that’s another matter….).

    My point is, there are no BookReaderPlayerGizmos that have built obsolescence into books. Amazon and the rest are trying to create such products, so that the e-version of my books will be obsolete in a short time and will require replacement, or upgrading, or whatever. But with books themselves, the delivery system is built in. When they stopped making new turntables, those of us with vinyl LPs were basically out of luck — that’s what killed records. Books are inherently different. That’s what gives me some hope.

    I don’t know if I made that as clear as I could have; I hope you can see what I’m trying (poorly) to say….

    I’ll also add this: Our generation might love books, but so do my kids. They adore them. They take them everywhere they go. And though they’re more comfortable with technology, and so might be less resistant to e-readers than you and I, they will still always love the printed word.

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