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.

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Libraries of the self: Or, are print books more ephemeral than e-books, and is it a bad thing if they are?

There’s a remarkable consistency in the way that readers write about their libraries.  Tropes of friendship, solace, and refuge abound, as well as metaphors of journey and travel that tell the tale of intellectual sojourn that books can occasion and recall for their readers.  Though I cannot recall the details of their first readings, I still treasure my Princeton paperback editions of the work of Soren Kierkegaard, the now ratty Vintage-Random House versions of Faulkner with their stark

Man made of books

white on black covers and yellowing pages,  my tattered and now broken copies of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, and his Selected Essays, held together by a rubber band, the band itself now so old it threatens to crumble into dust.  I keep these books now, not so much because of the information they contain.  Even the notes I’ve written in them aren’t all that entertaining and hold only a little nostalgic value:  I was a much more earnest reader as a younger person, but also duller, less informed, and more predictable, at least to my 51 year old eyes.  Still, these books are the talismans of a journey, and I keep them as stones set up to my memory of that journey, of the intellectual and imaginative places I’ve come to inhabit and the doorways I passed through to get here.  In that sense, a library represents both time passages and the attendant loss as much or more than they represent the knowledge and the information that has been gained.

Ariel Dorfman has a very nice meditation on the relationship between his library and his intellectual, political, and material journey in the September 23rd edition of the Chronicle Review.  In it Dorfman tells the story of his lost library, a library that he had to leave behind in Chile at the beginning of his exile.  The library was partially destroyed in a flood during his absence, and then partially recovered again when he returned to Chile in 1990.  As with many memoirs of reading, Dorfman understands the library as a symbol of the self.

Those books, full of scribbled notes in the margins, had been my one luxury in Chile, companions of my intellectual voyages, my best friends in the world. During democratic times, before the military takeover, I had poured any disposable income into that library, augmenting it with hundreds of volumes my doting parents acquired for me. It was a collection that overflowed in every impossible direction, piling up even in the bathroom and the kitchen.

It was a daily comfort, in the midst of our dispossession in exile, to imagine that cosmic biblioteca back home, gathering nothing more lethal than dust. That was my true self, my better self, that was the life of reading and writing I aspired to, the space where I had been at my most creative, penning a prize-winning novel, many short stories, innumerable articles and poems and analyses, in spite of my own doubts as to whether literature had any place at all in a revolution where reality itself was more challenging than my wildest imaginings. To pack the books away once we fled from the country would have been to acknowledge our wandering as everlasting. Even buying a book was proof that we intended to stay away long enough to begin a new library.

But, of course, Dorfman did begin a new library in his many years of exile, and his Chilean library was altered not only by the natural disaster of the flood, but also by the human transience whereby Dorfman himself changed and so changed his relationship with his books.  The changing shape of Dorfman’s library becomes an image of historical and personal change that must finally be embraced since it is unavoidable.

Six months later I had left Chile again, this time of my own free will, this time for good. I have puzzled often how I could have spent 17 years trying to go back and then, when I did indeed return, I forced myself to leave. It is still not clear to me if it was the country itself that had changed too much or if I was the one who had been so drastically altered by my exile that I no longer fit in, but whatever the cause, it left me forever divided, aware that my search for purity, simplicity, one country and one language and one set of allegiances was no longer possible.

It also left me with two libraries: the one I had rescued back home and the one that I have built outside Chile over the years and that is already so large that not one more new book fits in the shelves. I have had to start giving hundreds of books away and boxing many others in order to donate them to Duke University, where I teach. But no matter how many I get rid of, it does not look likely that there will ever be space to bring my whole Chilean library over.

And yet, I had already lost it once when I left my country and then regained half when that phone call came in 1982, and rescued what was left yet again in 1990 and can dream therefore that perhaps, one day, I will unite some books from Santiago with the thousands of books bought during my long exile. I can only hope and dream that before I die, a day will come when I will look up from the desk where I write these words, and my whole library, from here and there, from outside and inside Chile, will greet me, I can only hope and dream and pray that I will not remain divided forever.

It’s possible, of course, to lament our losses, and I suppose in some sense the vision of a library of the self is a utopian dream of resurrection wherein all our books, all the intellectual and imaginative doorways that we’ve passed through, will be gathered together in a room without loss.  But I also sense in Dorfman’s essay a sense that loss and fragility is one part of the meaningfulness of his books and his library.  I know that in some sense I love my books because they are old and fragile, or they will become that way.  They are treasured not only for the information they contain, but for the remembered self to which they testify.

I started this post thinking I would focus on the ways we sometimes talk about the ephemera of electronic digital texts.  There is something to that, and we’ve discussed that some over at my other group blog on the Digital Humanities.  At the same time, there is another sense in which e-texts are not ephemeral enough.  They do not grow old, they are always the same, they cannot show me the self I’ve become because that implies a history that e-texts do not embody.  While looking at my aging and increasingly dusty library, I feel them as a mirror to the person I’ve become.  Looking at my e-books stored on my iPad I see…..texts.  Do they mirror me?  Perhaps in a way, but they do not embody my memories.

If I give a book away to  a student, I always miss it with a certain imaginative ache, knowing that what was once mine is now gone and won’t be retrieved.  Somehow I’ve given that student something of my self, and so I don’t give away books lightly or easily.  If I give a student a gift card for iTunes….well, perhaps this requires no explanation.  And if I delete a book from my iBooks library I can retrieve it any time I want, until the eschaton, one imagines, or at least as long as my iTunes account exists.

Tchotchkes R’US: Formerly known as Barnes and Nobles, Booksellers

Like a beaten dog wagging its tail as it returns to the master for one more slap, I keep returning to Barnes and Nobles, hoping for a dry bone or at least a condescending pat on the head. Mostly getting the slap.  I’m wondering lately how much longer B&N can hold on to the subtitle of their name with a straight face. I admit that for purists Barnes and Nobles was never much of a bookseller in the first place, the corporate ambiance just a bit too antiseptic for the crowd that prefers their books straight, preferably with the slightest scent of dust and mold. But as a person that has spent the entirety of his life in flyover country, Barnes and Nobles and its recently deceased cousin Borders seemed something like salvation. If the ambiance was corporate, the books were real, and they were many. If there were too few from independent publishers, there were more than enough good books to last any reader a lifetime, and I spent many hours on my own wandering the shelves, feeling that ache that all readers know, the realization that there are too many good books and one lifetime will never be enough.

Barnes and Nobles became a family affair for us. One way I induced the habit of reading in my kids was to promise them I’d take them to B&N anytime they finished a book and buy them another one. The ploy paid off. My kids read voraciously, son and daughter alike, putting the lie to the notion that kids today have to choose between reading and surfing.  My kids do both just fine, and I think this is attributable in no small part to the fact our family time together was spent wandering the endless aisles of bookstores, imaging the endless possibilities, what the world would be like if we only had enough time to read them all. Other families go on kayak trips; we read books. I’m not sorry for the tradeoffs.

All that is mostly over, for paper books anyway. My son and I still go over to Barnes and Nobles, but the last three trips we’ve come out saying the same thing to one another without prompting–worthless. Aisle after Aisle of bookshelves in our local store are being replaced by toys and tchotchkes designed to…..do what? It’s not even clear. At least when the place was dominated by books it was clear that this was where you went for books. Now it seems like a vaguely upscale Walmart with a vast toy section. I’m waiting for the clothing section to open up soon.

I don’t think we should underestimate the consequence of these changes for booksellers and bookreaders. Although it is the case that readers will still be able to get books via your local Amazon.com, the place of books is changing in radical ways.  The advent of e-books is completely reordering the business of bookselling–and i would say the culture of books as well.  An article in the Economist notes that books are following in the sucking vortex that has swallowed the music and newspaper industries all but whole.  Among the biggest casualties is the books and mortar bookstore, and this is of no small consequence to the effort to sell books in general:

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is the gradual disappearance of the shop window. Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins, points out that a film may be released with more than $100m of marketing behind it. Music singles often receive radio promotion. Publishers, on the other hand, rely heavily on bookstores to bring new releases to customers’ attention and to steer them to books that they might not have considered buying. As stores close, the industry loses much more than a retail outlet. Publishers are increasingly trying to push books through online social networks. But Mr Murray says he hasn’t seen anything that replicates the experience of browsing a bookstore.

Confession, I actually enjoy browsing Amazon, and I read book reviews endlessly.  But I think this article is right that there is nothing quite like the experience of browsing the shelves at a bookstore, in part because it is a kind of communal event.  It is not that there are more choices–there aren’t, there are far more choices online.  Nor is it necessarily that things are better organized.  I think I have a better chance of finding things relevant to my interests through a search engine than I do by a chance encounter in the stack.   And, indeed, The Strand is a book store that leaves me vaguely nauseous and dizzy, both because there is too much choice and there is too little organization.  But the physical fact of browsing with one’s companions through the stacks, the chance encounter with a book you had heard about but never seen, the excitement of discovery, the anxious calculations–at least if you are an impoverished graduate student or new parent–as to whether you have enough cash on hand to make the purchase now or take a chance that the book will disappear if you wait.  All of these get left behind in the sterility of the online exchange.  The bookstore is finally a cultural location, a location of culture, where bookminded people go for buzz they get from being around other book-minded people.  I can get my books from Amazon, and I actually don’t mind getting them via e-books, avoiding all the fuss of going down and having a face to face transaction with a seller.  But that face to face is part of the point, it seems to me.  Even though book-buying has always fundamentally been about an exchange of cash for commodity, the failure to see that it was also more than that is the cultural poverty of a world that amazon creates.  With books stores dying a rapid death and libraries close upon their heels, I’m feeling a little like a man without a country, since the country of books is the one to which I’ve always been most loyal.

I am, of course, sounding old and crotchety.  The same article in the Economist notes that IKEA is now changing their bookshelf line in the anticipation that people will no longer use them for books.

TO SEE how profoundly the book business is changing, watch the shelves. Next month IKEA will introduce a new, deeper version of its ubiquitous “BILLY” bookcase. The flat-pack furniture giant is already promoting glass doors for its bookshelves. The firm reckons customers will increasingly use them for ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome—anything, that is, except books that are actually read.

I suspect this may be true.  Bookshelves and books alike may become craft items, things produced by those curious folks who do things by hand, items that you can only buy at craft fairs and auctions, something you can’t find at Wal-Mart, or Barnes and Nobles.

Librophilia; or, How I’d like to spend my retirement

As some of you know, I’ve occasionally posted links Rachel Loew’s BookPorn shots over at A Historian’s Craft.  I think Rachel may have a competitor for my attention.  The pics of libraries over at Curious Expeditions are just astonishing.  If I had the time and money for a world tour.  A sample:

Abbey Library St. Gallen, Switzerland

Abbey Library St. Gallen, Switzerland

On Reading and Linearity; or, the virtues of disorganization

Ok, I’ve been hardpressed to keep to my commitment to blog at least once a week.  But (he says hopefully) did anyone really miss me.

Gina Barreca has a nice piece over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed, where she talks about her own absolute disorganization as a personal librarian.  According to Barreca, book people fall in to two basic types: the puritanical organizers and the bohemian disorganized.  Both of whom look on the other with something of a pronounced moral disdain.

Personally I think I fall somewhere in the middle.  I am constantly anxious

What my library would look like if I were guilt-free

What my library would look like if I were guilt-free

about the disorganization of my books, which I suppose makes me something of a Calvinist.  Aware of my fallenness away from an ideal order, but also aware of my inability to do anything about.  Oh woeful disorganized man that I am, who will save my books from this body of sin and death.  Perhaps I’ll have to hire a life coach.

I’m actually genuinely interested in how Barreca described the effect of her disorganization on her reading.

So why do I prefer my own disorder to, for example, the brilliant ease offered by the books in my husband’s part of the library — the ones grouped alphabetically within their own periods?

For the same reasons I prefer a real-live bound, paper dictionary or thesaurus to a virtual one, which is the same reason I like libraries and bookstores, which just so happens to be the same reason I like reading promiscuously in the first place: You don’t know what delight an unexpected coupling will offer. There are literally unimagined pleasures arising from the surprising juxtaposition of unlikely words, materials, and texts.

How wonderful to discover what I didn’t know I was searching for, and what fun not to move, always, from A to B.

To some degree Barreca is flogging a distinction made by advocates of hypertext novels etcetera.  Typically, we imagine reading as a linear activity that procedes from beginning to end, and the supposed tyranny of the book reinforces this kind of reading process.  Always getting from point A to point B, no distractions inbetween.

What I like about Barreca’s offhanded comment is it shows how bizarre a picture of reading that actually is.  When advocates of hypertext declaim pompously about the superiority of networked reading in comparison to the tyrannical linear insistence of the book, I always think they have never really read a book, or at least their idea of reading is a game with which I am unfamiliar.

More typically we always read several books at once.  And we don’t read from beginning to end, we skip the dull parts, we read ahead to see if what we’re ploughing through at the moment is really worth it, we attend to the dialogue rather than the description, or vice-versa.  We forget what we read a week ago and start over, or we forget and skip forward to something that looks interesting.  We give up half way through and cast the text aside in despair. The form of the book has always been much more malleable than those hermeneuts of suspicion have allowed.

None of this necessary denies the superiority of hypertext for certain kinds of things, but at least in argumentation, we ought to give accurate pictures of what reading normally entails, so we can know how it is actually changing.

Books in a material world–Bookporn and more

I was talking to a couple of students yesterday, one of whom wants to be a librarian because she loves “being around books.” A little bit of a Scrooge, I guess, I told her she better get used to being around computers since that was the real future of libraries, taking her back a bit with my revelation that the library budget at our own college had just been required to move $50,000 from book purchasing to database collections. Small change for a lot of places, but for my smallish college $50,000 is nothing to sneeze at. Indeed, I’ve already felt the squeeze just a bit since English used to depend on the general fund of the library to order contemporary novels and poetry–which we ordered gleefully and at will. Probably partly on the erroneous assumption that availability would somehow translate into their being taken off the shelf. Well, that fund hasn’t disappeared, but we’ve been asked to order not quite so gleefully, and not quite so at will. A concrete manifestation of how a response to a perceived technological need–real or not–will gradually determine or close the future of the book as we’ve known it.

Still, my student was not dissuaded. She feels that books will always be with us because we love their physicality. There’s that body of the book theme again, and there’s something real about it that has to be thought through. Reading is not simply a mental process of decoding letters, not simply a process of getting information off a page or screen and in to our brains. It’s a physical activity to which we attach all kinds of cultural and personal meanings, a kind of spiritual reverence that the attach to the being of books that we cannot yet attach to computers.

We imagine computers too much as tools, and emphasizing their efficiency does too little to address the tactile, even the olfactory meanings that we attach to book culture. The other student who was with us was very intrigued by Amazon’s Kindle, but even she paused and said, “I became an English major when I looked out from the balcony and saw the stacks and stacks of books.” The physicality of books inspires a reverence, whereas the efficiency of computers inspires…what?…a sense of efficiency?

Indeed, I’m intrigued by the growing tendency of laptop users to try and personalize their laptops–recreating their essential impersonality through a kind of personal graffiti. There’s a great newstory on this phenomenon at c/net, along with Personalized laptop.  One of my favorites. 

We do this with books, it seems to me, but not in the same way. We don’t feel compelled to personalize the cover of a book, and our markings in a text are more to memorialize a reading experience than to carve a human personality into what is, after all, a machine. Books are a technology, but at the least we have learned to experience them as extensions of the body rather than as tools.

Along these lines, I’ve been running in to a lot of images of books again. Rachel Leow over at A Historian’s Craft celebrates the one year anniversary of her blog with BookPorn #27, a couple of fabulous images of the Library of the Musee Guimet. Says Rachel:Library Musee Guimet

“There’s a kind of hushed atmosphere when you walk in: the lights are dim and people shuffle about, struck silent with reverence, or perhaps the disconcerting, all-pervading pinkness of the walls and columns. The books lie, untouchable, behind their wire cages, and the smell of old paper lingers about well after you step, blinking, back out into the fluorescent glare of the exhibition outside.”

Nice writing, Rachel. And happy birthday. It seems to me that Rachel gets at this notion of the importance of the physicality of books inspiring a kind of reverence, something I attach even to my tattered paperback crowded onto basement shelves, but which I don’t really attach to my computer. Like nearly everyone else, I’m sure I spend a great deal more time on my computer reading anymore than I do in actually reading books. Like most white collar workers I’m chained here all day, and then blog all night. But feeling reverence for my computer feels a little bit like feeling reverence for my screwdriver. Not impossible, I guess. I’m sure many a carpenter has a deep feeling for his screwdriver. But I also guess that mostly such carpenters are considered weird by everyone else.

Books are tools, but it’s a mistake to think that what counts in reading them is the toolishness. If we only focus on the instrumental qualities associated with text delivery, there is no question that the e-book-o-philes among us are right to scoff at fears of digital libraries. Still, culture is more than instrumental, and always has been.

Along these lines, there’s a humorous and very interesting Giuseppe Acrimboldo Librarianskewering of those of us who are book fetishists over at if:book. Chris Mead has written a song about the history of books along with a lot of great images. My favorite is this from Giuseppe Acrimboldo, “The Librarian.” I love it. The human is text, no a book, a library. What I’ve always thought anyway. I am my books. I don’t yet say, I am my computer. Will I ever.

Chris takes the opportunity to skewer the-sky-is-falling attitude that some of us bring to the changes that are going on

“words: written in silence, muttered in monasteries
have been sung, shouted, acted – now by digital industries

broadcast and mixed for our burgeoning multiculture,

but circled by many a gloom-laden vulture

crying “R.I.P. books: doomed to extinction
by some blinking e-inky, i-evil invention”.
The word spreads and
changes; that’s my belief.
What next for the book?
The future lies overleaf.

Very nice. Dr. Seussian. Ok, only almost. Still, Chris’s poem/song emphasizes an assumption that I think is flatly wrong. That the technology of reading is essentially inconsequential for the act of reading itself. This is clear explicitly in the opening part of his poem.

“Books are what a society carries its words in
and words have been written on stone, silk, slate, parchment,
wax, clay, screen and skin,”

This is superficially true, but the assumption seems to be that reading is only about decoding letters, and books–or parchments or scrolls or screens–are merely delivery systems that are more or less equal except in the efficiency with which they can deliver text to readers. This is flatly false, as any historian of books and reading could point out in half a breath. In some sense, when we went from reading scrolls to reading codexes and then books, the changing technology changed the meaning of the act of reading, not just the techniques of the act of reading. It is this changing meaning that is crucial to try and understand. Techniques of text delivery can merely be learned through users manuals. Meanings and their attendant ways of being human are less easily learned and unlearned. We ought to pay attention to what those changes might be.

Final note: I’m sure everyone’s familiar with this video, but it still makes me smile. It’s a reminder that all of the cultural associations we have with books had to be learned. There’s nothing natural about our sentimental attachments to books. As kids, we’re all in the position of the monk at a loss here, not knowing which way a book sets on the table, which way to turn the pages. Culture is learned. That doesn’t mean the demise of books should be sniffed at. But culture is learned.