Digitization and the fulfillment of the book

My colleague in the library here at Messiah College, Jonathan Lauer, has a very nice essay in the most recent Digital Campus edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Jonathan makes an eloquent defense of the traditional book over and against the googlization and ebookification of everything.   He especially employs an extended metaphor drawn from the transition to aluminum bats in various levels of baseball to discuss his unease and reservations about the shifts to electronic books and away from print that is profoundly and rapidly changing the nature of libraries as we’ve known them.  The essay is more evocative than argumentative, so there’s a lot of different things going on, but a couple of Jonathan’s main points are that enhancements we supposedly achieve with digitization projects come at a cost to our understanding of texts and at a cost to ourselves.

In the big leagues, wooden bats still matter. Keeping print materials on campus and accessible remains important for other reasons as well. Witness Andrew M. Stauffer’s recent Chroniclearticle, “The Troubled Future of the 19th-Century Book.” Stauffer, the director of the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship, cites several examples of what we all know intuitively. “The books on the shelves carry plenty of information lost in the process of digitization, no matter how lovingly a particular copy is rendered on the screen,” he writes. “There are vitally significant variations in the stacks: editions, printings, issues, bindings, illustrations, paper type, size, marginalia, advertisements, and other customizations in apparently identical copies.” Without these details, discernible only in physical copies, we are unable to understand a book’s total impact. Are we so easily seduced by the aluminum bat that we toss all wooden ones from the bat bag?

Let’s also acknowledge that our gadgets eventually program us. History teaches us that technologies often numb the very human capacities they amplify; in its most advanced forms, this is tantamount to auto-amputation. As weavers lost manual dexterity with their use of increasingly mechanized looms during the Industrial Revolution, so we can only imagine what effect GPS will have on the innate and learned ability of New York City cabbies to find their way around the five boroughs. Yet we practice auto-amputation at our own peril. We dare not abandon wooden bats for aluminum for those endeavors that demand prolonged attention, reflection, and the analysis and synthesis that sometimes lead to wisdom, the best result of those decidedly human endeavors that no gadget can exercise.

I have a lot of sympathy for Jonathan’s position, things like the revamping of the New York Public Library leaving me with a queasy hole in my stomach.  I’ve had a running conversation with Beth Transue, another of our librarians, about our desire to start leading alumni tours of the world’s great libraries, but if we’re going to do so we better get it done fast because most of them won’t be around anymore in a few more years, at least if the NYPL and its budgetary woes are anything to judge by.

At the same time, I think Jonathan overstates his case here.  I don’t think serious thinkers are assuming we’ll get rid of books entirely.  Although I currently think we are already living in what I’ve called an E-plus world, print will continue to be with us serving many different purposes. Jason Epstein over at the NYRB has a blog on this fact and progrognosticating the likely future and uses of the traditional book seems to be a growth industry at the moment. I don’t think the average student is too terribly interested in the material textuality that Jonathan references above, nor for that matter is the average scholar, the vast majority of whom remain interested in what people wrote not how the publishers chose to package it.  But those issues will continue to be extremely important for cultural and social historians, and there will be some forms of work that will only possibly be done with books.  Just as it is a tremendous boon to have Joyce’s manuscript’s digitized, making them available for the general reader and the scholar who cannot afford a trip to Ireland, authoritative interpretations of Joyce’s method, biography, and life’s work will still have to make the trip to Ireland to see the thing for themselves, to capture what can’t be captured by a high resolution camera.

That having been said, who would say that students studying Joyce should avoid examining the digitized manuscripts closely because they aren’t “the genuine article.”  Indeed, I strongly suspect that even the authoritative interpretations of those manuscripts will increasingly be a commerce between examination of the physical object and close examination of digitized objects since advanced DH work shows us time and time again that computerized forms of analysis can get at things the naked eye could never see.  So the fact that there are badly digitized copies of things in google books and beyond, shouldn’t belie the fact that there are some massively important scholarly opportunities here.

Jonathan’s second point is about the deeply human and quasi-spiritual aspects of engagement with traditional books that so many of us have felt over the years.  There’s something very true about this. It is also true that our technologies can result in forms of self amputation.  Indeed, if we are to take it to heart we need to admit that the technology of writing and reading itself is something that involves self-amputation.  Studies have shown that heavy readers alter their brains, and not always in a good sense.  We diminish the capacity of certain forms of memory, literally making ourselves absent minded professors.   Other studies have suggested that persons in oral cultures have this capacity in heightened form, and  some people argue that this generation is far more visually acute than those that preceded it, developing new abilities because of their engagement with visual texts.  So, indeed, our technologies alter us, and even result in self-amputation, but that is true of the traditional book as well as the internet.  This second is Jonathan’s larger claim since it seems to claim for traditional books as such a superiority in terms of something central to humanity as such. I am intrigued, with this argument that the book is superior for serious reflection and the quasi spiritual aspects of study that we have come to treat as central to the humanities.

I admit, I don’t buy it.

First, I admit that I’m just wary about attributing essential human superiorities to historical artifact and practices.  Homer as a collection of aural songs is not inherently inferior to the scrolls within which they were originally collected, then finding their apotheosis in the book form.  We have come to think of the book as exhibiting and symbolizing superior forms of humanity, but it’s not clear that book form was triumphant in the west because of these attributes.  Indeed, traditional Jews and others clearly think the scroll remains the superior spiritual form even to this day.  Rather, the codex triumphed for a variety of complicated reasons.  Partly Christian Churches for ideological reasons apparently wanted to distinguish their own writings from the writings of the Jews.  There may have been some more substantive reasons as well, though that’s not entirely clear: Anthony Grafton points out that many of the Christian innovations with the codex seemed to focus on the desire to compare different kinds of texts side by side (an innovation, I will point out, for which the internet is in many ways easily superior).  The codex also triumphed not because it was spiritually and intellectually superior but because it was, frankly, more efficient, cheaper, and easier to disseminate than its scrolly ancestors.  One good example is from the poet Martial who explicitly ties the selling of his poetry in codex form to making them easily and efficiently accessible to the common person:  “Assign your book-boxes to the great, this copy of me one hand can grasp.”

The entire trend of book history has been toward this effort to make texts and what they contain more readily and easily available to more and more people.  From the early clay tablets to the mass market paperback that let you carry Plato in your hip pocket, the thrust of the book has been toward broader and broader dissemination, toward greater and greater ease of use, toward cheaper and cheaper accessibility.  The goal of writing, even when that writing was imprisoned in libraries that only the initiated could enter as in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, has been open access.

The digitization that is occurring now comes to fulfill the book, not destroy it.

Secondarily, I guess I no longer believe fully in the spiritual or intellectual superiority of codex forms simply since it doesn’t comport with my experience.  As I do more and more of my reading of books with my various e-readers, I find that I have serious, contemplative, analytical, and synthetic engagements with all kinds of texts, from those hundreds of “pages” long and those not.  As I get used to the tools of various e-readers, theres almost nothing that can’t be accomplished in some way on an e-reader that is accomplished in traditional books.  Although I interact with texts differently now in a spatial sense, I am able to take fuller and more copious notes, I am able to mark texts more easily,  and if I can’t quite remember where something was in the book I can use a search engine to find not only a specific phrase or topic, but every single instance of that topic in the book.  Moreover, because every text represents an act of contemplation on and conversation with other texts, I can at the touch of a screen go and read for myself the interlocutors embedded within a book, just as those interested in Jonathan’s essay can touch my link above and decide for themselves whether I am reading him fairly.  Thus there are very obviously and seriously some ways in which e-readers are superior for serious analytical and interpretive readings of texts, or at least the equal to them.

All this having been said, I will say that there remains one way that I find the traditional paper book the clear superior to the e-book, and that has to do with my ability to make it mine.

I spoke a couple of days ago about the personal connection I felt to Kierkegaard in rereading him and discovering my many years of underlines, highlights and marginalia.  I even confess that I real Kimi Cunningham Grant’s new memoir on my iPad, but I still bought a hard cover at the reading–not because I thought I would be able to analyze it more effectively in hard cover, but because I wanted her to sign it for me.

This is a personal connection to the book that isn’t unimportant, but that is about my personal biography, and Kimi’s.  It’s not about the text, and frankly I doubt it will in the long run even be about literary history.  Some literary archivist somewhere is collecting all the shared comments on the Kindle version of Kimi’s book, and that massive marginalia will be fodder for some graduate student’s dissertation in a few decades.

I pity the poor graduate student who decides on such a project. But at least she won’t have to strain her eyes to decipher the handwriting.

Teaching Latin on an iPad: An experiment at Messiah College

An example of some of the things that Messiah College is trying to do in experimenting with digital technology in the classroom.  My colleague Joseph Huffman is more pessimistic than I about the promise of iPads and e-books, but I’m just glad we have faculty trying to figure it out.  See the full post at the link below.

You might not expect a historian of Medieval and Renaissance Europe to be among the first educators at Messiah College to volunteer to lead a pilot project exploring the impact of mobile technology—in this case, the iPad—on students’ ability to learn. But that’s exactly what happened.Joseph Huffman, distinguished professor of European history, and the eight students in his fall 2011 Intermediate Latin course exchanged their paper textbooks for iPads loaded with the required texts, relevant apps, supplementary PDFs and a Latin-English dictionary. The primary goal was to advance the learning of Latin. The secondary goal was to determine whether the use of the iPad improved, inhibited or did not affect their ability to learn a foreign language.Why Latin?“A Latin course is about as traditional a humanities course as one can find,” Huffman says. Because any foreign language course requires deep and close readings of the texts, studying how student learning and engagement are affected by mobile technology is especially provocative in such a classic course. In addition, Latin fulfills general language course requirements and, therefore, classes are comprised of students from a variety of majors with, perhaps, diverse experiences with mobile technologies like iPads.One aspect of the experiment was to explore whether students would engage the learning process differently with an iPad than a textbook.

The assumption, Huffman admits, is that today’s students likely prefer technology over books.Huffman’s experiences with his Latin 201 course—comprised of five seniors, two sophomores and one junior—challenged that commonly held assumption.

via Messiah College: Messiah News – Messiah College Homepage Features » iPad experiment.

The Pew Research Center Report on Reading and e-books: Reading More and Reading Less

The Huffington Post had a somewhat different take on the Pew Research Center Report concerning reading than I had in yesterdays post:

The surveys of 2,986 respondents, carried out in English and Spanish at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, also showed that the average (calculated by mean) American reads 17 books a year.

However, 19% of respondents aged 16 and over said that they hadn’t read a single book in any format, over the previous 12 months – the highest since such surveys on American reading habits began in 1978. If this figure is accurate, that means more than 50 million Americans don’t read books at all.

 
This is the typical fare of discourse of the reading crisis that I’ve commented on extensively elsewhere.  In some ways it seems to me that this speaks to a kind of literacy divide–those who can concentrate and comprehend (or just tolerate) long-form texts and those who cannot.  I am no longer completely sure we have a reading crisis in the abstract. I think in some respects people are reading more than ever. But I do think we have a concrete reading crisis in the sense that long form reading of many types is becoming harder to sustain.  
 
The advantage of the codex, fewer distractions.  The disadvantage of the codex, we are living in a world of distraction.  One of Alex Juhasz’s insights at the Re:Humanities 2012 undergraduate conference a couple of weeks ago was that we have to figure out how to write for a world that is permanently distracted.  Is this a better world?  I doubt it.  Is it a reality?  I don’t know how to doubt that it is.  
 
The question is, how may one write in to that world while also intervening and resisting its most fragmenting and distracting aspects.  What kind of writing might both engage and accept distractedness while ultimately provoke focus and concentration or at least pointing to their possibility?

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy: Books in a pound of flesh

Among the other advantages of Twitter–besides finding out what famous people ate for breakfast–I discover knowledge that I find both nauseating and compelling.  In his recent discourse on the history of the book at Messiah College, Anthony Grafton did not manage to get in to the arcana of book binding, else he may have filled us in a bit more on Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, a term I picked up via a tweet from the LA Times book review.  From the blog the chirurgeon’s apprentice: a website devote to the horrors of pre-anaesthetic surgery:

The process of binding books using human flesh is known as ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’. One of the earlier examples dates from the 17th century and currently resides in Langdell Law Library at Harvard University. It is a Spanish law bookpublished in 1605. The colour of the binding is a ‘subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana’. [1] On the last page, there is an inscription which reads:


The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma [possibly an African tribe from modern-day Zimbabwe, see below illustration]on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace. [2]

Although it seems macabre to our modern sensibilities, this book was rebound as a way of memorialising the life of Jonas Wright. In this way, it is similar to mourning jewellery made from the hair of the deceased and worn by the Victorians during the 19th century. It is a poignant reminder of the life that has been lost.

Poignant indeed, though I doubt I’ll be asking my wife if she would like a skin-covered book to remember me by.  The post goes on to note.

Anthropodermic bibliopegy reached its height of popularity during the French Revolution, when a fresh supply of bodies was always available. All sorts of books were wrapped in human skins, including a collection of poems by John Milton. One of the last known books to be bound in this fashion dates from 1893 and currently resides at Brown University. The binder did not have quite enough skin for the book, and thus split the piece into two – the front cover is bound using the outer layer of skin; the back cover and spine are bound using the inner layer of skin.

If you didn’t know better, you would think it was suede.

Gives new meaning to the idea of “Kindle Skins.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Zombie Author–Or, I am the hype that I descry

I picked up via twitter yesterday that a Kurt Vonnegut novella that was twice rejected by major magazines has been published for the first time via Amazon singles.  Dutifully, I downloaded the book and now have it available via my Kindle app on my iPad and ready for reading. Perhaps a review will be in the offing if I can get around to it. (If I would blog less, I’m sure I would read more.)  The ways in which this leaves me feeling strange and uneasy requires a catalogue.

1.  If the book has been rejected multiple times and Vonnegut in his later life never chose to publish it when he most assuredly could have, as an e-book or otherwise, why should I buy this book now.  Is it because “it’s a Vonnegut,” and therefore worthy of my time.  I think this must not be true since in the end Vonnegut didn’t think it was even worth his time.  Am I somehow trading in a cult of celebrity in which the Vonnegut industry keeps pumping out the undead wisdom–even if the quality of the book might end up being something akin to a black velvet painting of Elvis being sold on the roadside beside a 7-Eleven in Arkansas.  Somehow I think here of Foucaults inquiry in to what exactly constitutes the work of an author.  I always kind of smiled at the question of whether an author’s laundry list is a part of his or her work.  I am now wondering whether Vonnegut’s laundry lists will be imaged and sold online as amazon singles.

2. I haven’t read half of the Vonnegut that Vonnegut himself thought was worth publishing.  Why should I purchase this latest for 1.99.  Because its easy and I didn’t even have to leave my couch to do it?  On the other hand, I have wasted a good bit more money than that on impulse purchases of literary magazines that now serve landfills, or perhaps could be fodder for Liz Laribee’s latest art project(the latter a worthy demise, I should say)

3.  Should I really enrich Rosetta Books and Amazon.com in pursuit of Vonnegut’s ghost.

4. Is there a problem with the fact that the internet erases distinctions between ephemera and things of “enduring value”?  What is the nature of “enduring value” when essentially everything can endure on an equal plane and theoretically in to eternity. ( I know here that my colleague Samuel Smith thinks the internet is more ephemeral than a paper book, but I have my doubts.  If we really get to the point of apocalypse in which all our digital resources are essentially unavailable through some massive destruction of the grid, we won’t be reading our paper books either.  We’ll be burning them in our fireplaces.  Or cooking them in our soups.)  The intellectual world is flat, and if Rosetta books had not chosen to publish the work, some enterprising graduate student with a scanner and an email account could have.

5.  Is it a problem that in writing this blog post, linking to websites, retweeting GalleyCat missives, posting to Facebook, I am flogging a book that I haven’t even read, part of the industrial–internet–publishing complex that makes Kurt Vonnegut a Zombie Author who continues to fascinate and destroy.  I am the hype that I descry.

What is the future of the book?–Anthony Grafton’s Keynote lecture at Messiah College

This past February we had the privilege of hearing from Dr. Anthony Grafton from Princeton University at our Humanities Symposium at Messiah College.  Grafton is a formidable scholar and intellect, and a generous soul, a too rare combination.  The following video is his keynote lecture for the Symposium.  Grafton’s instincts are conservative, readily admitting his undying love for the codex and its manifold cultural institutions (libraries, used bookstores, even Barnes and Nobles).  At the same time, he is under no illusions that the future of the book lies elsewhere.  His lecture looks at what is threatened, what should be valued and protected from the fast, but also what might be a potential for the future of the book, and what values we should bring to bear to shape the book, which is, after all, a human institution.

Many thanks to Derick Esch, my work study student, for his work in filming and producing this video.  Other videos from the symposium can be found at the same vimeo page.

Dr. Anthony Grafton: 2012 Humanities Symposium Keynote Address from Messiah Humanities on Vimeo.

Living in an e-plus world: Students now prefer digital texts when given a choice

A recent blog by Nick DeSantis in the Chronicle points to a survey by the Pearson Foundation that suggests Tablet ownership is on the rise.  That’s not surprising, but more significant is the fact that among tablet users there’s a clear preference for digital texts over the traditional paper codex, something we haven’t seen before even among college students of this wired generation:

One-fourth of the college students surveyed said they owned a tablet, compared with just 7 percent last year. Sixty-three percent of college students believe tablets will replace textbooks in the next five years—a 15 percent increase over last year’s survey. More than a third said they intended to buy a tablet sometime in the next six months.

This year’s poll also found that the respondents preferred digital books over printed ones. It’s a reversal of last year’s results and goes against findings of other recent studies, which concluded that students tend to choose printed textbooks. The new survey found that nearly six in 10 students preferred digital books when reading for class, compared with one-third who said they preferred printed textbooks.

I find this unsurprising as it matches up pretty well with my own experience.  5 years ago I could never imagine doing any significant reading on a tablet.  Now I do all my reading of scholarly journals and long form journalism–i.e The Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, The Chronicle Review–on my iPad.  And while I still tend to prefer the codex for the reading of novels and other book length works, the truth is that preference is slowly eroding as well.  As I become more familiar with the forms of e-reading, the notions of its inherent inferiority, like the notions of any unreflective prejudice, gradually fade in the face of familiarity.

And yet I greet the news of this survey with a certain level of panic, not panic that it should happen at all, but panic that the pace of change is quickening and we are hardly prepared, by we I mean we in the humanities here in small colleges and elsewhere.  I’ve blogged on more than one occasion about my doubts about e-books and yet my sense of their inevitable ascendancy.  For instance here on the question of whether e-books are being foisted on students by a cabal of publishers and administrators like myself out to save a buck (or make a buck as the case may be), and here on the nostalgic but still real feeling that I have that print codex forms of books have an irreplaceable individuality and physicality that the mere presence of text in a myriad of e-forms does not suffice to replace.

But though I’ve felt the ascendancy of e-books was inevitable, I think I imagined a 15 or 20 year time span in which print and e-books would mostly live side by side.  Our own librarians here at Messiah College talk about a “print-plus” model for libraries, as if e-book will remain primarily an add on for some time to come.  I wonder.  Just as computing power increases exponentially, it seems to me that the half-life of print books is rapidly diminishing.  I now wonder whether we will have five years before students will expect their books to be in print–all their books, not just their hefty tomes for CHEM 101 that can be more nicely illustrated with iBook Author–but also their books for English and History classes as well.  This is an “e-plus”  world  where print will increasingly not be the norm, but the supplement to fill whatever gaps e-books have not yet bridged, whatever textual landscapes have not yet been digitized.

Despite warnings, we aren’t yet ready for an e-plus world.  Not only do we not know how to operate the apps that make these books available, we don’t even know how to critically study books in tablet form.  Yet learning what forms of critical engagement are possible and necessary will be required.  I suspect, frankly, that our current methods developed out of a what was made possible by the forms that texts took, rather than forms following our methodological urgencies.  This means that the look of critical study in the classroom will change radically in the next ten years.  What will it look like?