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Books and Bytes

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)

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
lrcutter
Nov. 20th, 2007 06:08 pm (UTC)
Interesting article, particularly in the light of this:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000FI73MA/ref=cm_rdp_product
davidbcoe
Nov. 20th, 2007 06:38 pm (UTC)
Yeah. Take a look at my friend Stephen Leigh's (sleigh) review of the kindle here on LJ.
(Deleted comment)
davidbcoe
Nov. 20th, 2007 06:40 pm (UTC)
My kids do as well, but they love their books, too. I think over time reading as we know it will hybridize with e-reading. But, fool that I am, I believe books will endure.
(Deleted comment)
davidbcoe
Nov. 20th, 2007 07:26 pm (UTC)
And when you write big fat fantasies like we do, they can be used to prop open doors and windows, keep other books from falling down, and squash stray wasps that wander into your home....
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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