A short but excellent article in the Wall Street Journal by Steven Johnson does the service of touching on a few of the key elements in the ongoing murder of the book. They would be called clues were the crime not committed in plain sight and to the indifference of those very witnesses whose lives and fortunes will be most devastated by the loss.
I imagine the death will be mourned much like that of a rich uncle whose testament has yet to be read. The gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts will not occur until later, when it is discovered that Uncle Octavo has squandered his fortune in recent years and there is nothing left for his various relatives or wives, much less his children, legitimate or not.
Let us look at the evidence.
There have been many articles of late on the coming of the electronic book. Mr. Johnson very wisely proffers some more subtle forensics, but most of the others have the gosh-wow of a kid in the 1920’s who has built his first crystal-radio. Oh, how the world will change! And I would hasten to add, the world did not change enough to keep that kid off the beaches at Normandy in 1944.
The first new new internet was the system of canals that enlarged our lives starting around the 1820’s. By that time, mankind had traveled on roads by foot, wagon, and coach for many thousands of years–roughly at the speed of conversation from ear to ear. One terrific change caused by the canal was the rise of New York City publishing at the hub of a new age. Railroads came along shortly after–much like wi-fi has followed cable–and increased the importance of New York as the intellectual center of the universe.
Electricity brought with it the genius of the telegraph, the teletype, then the telephone. The radio was quickly overshadowed by the television. Through all of this, the book maundered the results. Gatsby played his phonograph, the literati danced, while in the alcove by the potted palm, Prufrock, martini in hand, warned of the hollowing of mankind. And, nearby, the butler could be seen with a candlestick entering the library.
The threads which held the bindings through the centuries have been pulled in favor of a cheaper glue. The sturdy cloth covers that replaced the extravagance of leather have now become mere cardboard. The paper of the text itself is re-cycled–acid free and ready to be recycled again. All of it is disposable now. Books warp and buckle on the shelf without being read or even handled.
And what of the contents in the library safe? The jewelry is paste–mostly post-modern costume artifacts. Words are now adjusted to suit the occasion. If a word bothers you, it can be banned. If an author does not stay on topic, he won’t get a slot on the talk show.
It is time for the e-book.
It’s time that the author be dethroned in any case. Who are they, after all? Just products of their time. Their words might well have been spoken by any other. Their ideas are borrowed, are they not? They are just the latest product of an imperfect educational system. Where they differ, it is only a matter of prejudice.
It is time for the e-book.
Truth is only relative. Offending passages can be digitally removed. ‘Facts’ can be enhanced to suit the moment. And who will be the judge of that? Or is it just that–the truth has no relatives.
Who will save the Earth from these troublesome books? Recycle them!
It is time for the e-book. Have you got one yet? It can be read on the subway, or at the park. All the books in the world are in your hand. All the intellectual power of Rome! No need for libraries. No need for bookshops. No need, in fact, for books.
Technology has triumphed. No longer is the screen bleached by the brilliance of the sun…But neither is it graced by the glimmer of quiet revelation as the eye meets the word in ink on a page.
Mr. Steven Johnson refers to the book as “dark matter.” Yes! Precisely. The tens of millions of books that have shaped our culture will now be burned into pixels of light.
Mr. Johnson is clearly smitten with his toy, but importantly he has paused to ask some questions. His wariness is perhaps caused by a glance at the toys of yesteryear filling the back of his closet shelves.
As the great Google digitalizes text and makes each passage of Moby Dick available sentence by sentence, and word by word, what place will be left for Ishmael? Will Isaac be the only survivor instead? Choose your own text, and Melville be damned.
Mr. Johnson notes: “Because they have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading. Online you can click happily from blog post to email thread to online New Yorker article–sampling, commenting and forwarding as you go. But when you sit down with an old-fashioned book in your hand, the medium works naturally against such distractions; it compels you to follow the thread, to stay engaged with a single narrative or argument.”
Willy Loman might have warned, “Attention must be paid.” But with attention spans being reduced to a mere click, is it necessary to read the part about the whaling industry? Can’t I just go right to the good parts? Are you bored yet?
Will writers write so that readers can play tag with the gems and ignore the settings? The heroin of one climax after another will make the marijuana of Proust rather passe, don’t you think? Or is there time to think when there are so many links to follow? The great Google will lead us to an answer.
And when the electricity fails and the lights go out, what? Was the candlestick to hold a candle, or to bludgeon?