[Marxism] Are books extinct?
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 19 06:58:15 MDT 2011
NY Times Sunday Opinion July 16, 2011
Books and Other Fetish Objects
By JAMES GLEICK
I GOT a real thrill in December 1999 in the Reading Room of the
Morgan Library in New York when the librarian, Sylvie Merian,
brought me, after I had completed an application with a letter of
reference and a photo ID, the first, oldest notebook of Isaac
Newton. First I was required to study a microfilm version. There
followed a certain amount of appropriate pomp. The notebook was
lifted from a blue cloth drop-spine box and laid on a special
padded stand. I was struck by how impossibly tiny it was — 58
leaves bound in vellum, just 2 3/4 inches wide, half the size I
would have guessed from the enlarged microfilm images. There was
his name, “Isacus Newton,” proudly inscribed by the 17-year-old
with his quill, and the date, 1659.
“He filled the pages with meticulous script, the letters and
numerals often less than one-sixteenth of an inch high,” I wrote
in my book “Isaac Newton” a few years later. “He began at both
ends and worked toward the middle.”
Apparently historians know the feeling well — the exhilaration
that comes from handling the venerable original. It’s a contact
high. In this time of digitization, it is said to be endangered.
The Morgan Notebook of Isaac Newton is online now (thanks to the
Newton Project at the University of Sussex). You can surf it.
The raw material of history appears to be heading for the cloud.
What once was hard is now easy. What was slow is now fast.
Is this a case of “be careful what you wish for”?
Last month the British Library announced a project with Google to
digitize 40 million pages of books, pamphlets and periodicals
dating to the French Revolution. The European Digital Library,
Europeana.eu, well surpassed its initial goal of 10 million
“objects” last year, including a Bulgarian parchment manuscript
from 1221 and the Rok runestone from Sweden, circa 800, which will
save you trips to, respectively, the St. Cyril and St. Methodius
National Library in Sofia and a church in Ostergotland.
Reporting to the European Union in Brussels, the Comité des Sages
(sounds better than “Reflection Group”) urged in January that
essentially everything — all the out-of-copyright cultural
heritage of all the member states — should be digitized and made
freely available online. It put the cost at approximately $140
billion and called this vision “The New Renaissance.”
Inevitably comes the backlash. Where some see enrichment, others
see impoverishment. Tristram Hunt, an English historian and member
of Parliament, complained in The Observer this month that
“techno-enthusiasm” threatens to cheapen scholarship. “When
everything is downloadable, the mystery of history can be lost,”
he wrote. “It is only with MS in hand that the real meaning of the
text becomes apparent: its rhythms and cadences, the relationship
of image to word, the passion of the argument or cold logic of the
I’m not buying this. I think it’s sentimentalism, and even
fetishization. It’s related to the fancy that what one loves about
books is the grain of paper and the scent of glue.
Some of the qualms about digital research reflect a feeling that
anything obtained too easily loses its value. What we work for, we
better appreciate. If an amateur can be beamed to the top of Mount
Everest, will the view be as magnificent as for someone who has
accomplished the climb? Maybe not, because magnificence is
subjective. But it’s the same view.
Another worry is the loss of serendipity — as Mr. Hunt says, “the
scholar’s eternal hope that something will catch his eye.” When
you open a book Newton once owned, which you can do (by
appointment) in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, you may
see notes he scribbled in the margins. But marginalia are being
digitized, too. And I find that online discovery leads to
unexpected twists and turns of research at least as often as the
same time spent in archives.
“New Renaissance” may be a bit of hype, but a profound
transformation lies ahead for the practice of history. Europeans
seem to have taken the lead in creating digital showcases; maybe
they just have more history to work with than Americans do. One
brilliant new resource among many is the London Lives project:
240,000 manuscript and printed pages dating to 1690, focusing on
the poor, including parish archives, records from workhouses and
hospitals, and trial proceedings from the Old Bailey.
Storehouses like these, open to anyone, will surely inspire new
scholarship. They enrich cyberspace, particularly because without
them the online perspective is so foreshortened, so locked into
the present day. Not that historians should retire to their
computer terminals; the sights and smells of history, where we can
still find them, are to be cherished. But the artifact is hardly a
clear window onto the past; a window, yes, clouded and smudged
like all the rest.
It’s a mistake to deprecate digital images just because they are
suddenly everywhere, reproduced so effortlessly. We’re in the
habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world
unlinks them. You can be the sole owner of a Jackson Pollock or a
Blue Mauritius but not of a piece of information — not for long,
anyway. Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters
the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never
the parchment that mattered.
Oddly, for collectors of antiquities, the pricing of informational
relics seems undiminished by cheap reproduction — maybe just the
opposite. In a Sotheby’s auction three years ago, Magna Carta
fetched a record $21 million. To be exact, the venerable item was
a copy of Magna Carta, made 82 years after the first version was
written and sealed at Runnymede. Why is this tattered parchment
valuable? Magical thinking. It is a talisman. The precious item is
a trick of the eye. The real Magna Carta, the great charter of
human rights and liberty, is available free online, where it is
safely preserved. It cannot be lost or destroyed.
An object like this — a talisman — is like the coffin at a
funeral. It deserves to be honored, but the soul has moved on.
James Gleick is the author of “The Information: A History, a
Theory, a Flood.”
NY Times Sunday Magazine July 13, 2011
Let’s Ban Books, Or at Least Stop Writing Them
By BILL KELLER
There was exciting news last month among the Twitterati. Brian
Stelter, The New York Times prodigy and master of social media,
announced to his 64,373 followers that he is going to write a
book. The obvious question: What’s up with that?
Not that I doubt he can do it. The man The New York Observer calls
our “Svelte Twitter Svengali” has a history of setting the bar
high and vaulting over it. He files prodigiously for The Times;
stars in the new “Page One” documentary; and has promulgated, as
of my last check, 21,376 Tweets — not counting the separate
Twitter stream where he records every morsel of food he consumes.
(Brian lost more than 90 pounds last year on a Twitter-assisted
diet; it’s probably hard to feed yourself when your fingers are
permanently affixed to a keyboard.) As his colleague in the
media-reporting unit, David Carr, memorably said of the talented
upstart, “I still can’t get over the feeling that Brian Stelter
was a robot assembled in the basement of The New York Times to
come and destroy me.”
So yes, he can write a book. But why would he want to? Why, in
fact, would anyone want to?
For years now the populist prophets of new media have been
proclaiming the death of books, and the marketplace seems to back
them up. Sales of print books in the U.S. peaked in 2005 and have
been in steady decline since, according to publishers’ net revenue
data reported to the Association of American Publishers.
Watching that trend, I find my grief for the state of civilization
comes with a guilty surge of relief. Sure, I would miss books —
and so, by the way, would my children — but at least the death of
books would put an end to the annoying fact that everyone who
works for me is either writing one or wants to. I would get my
Every month, it seems, some reporter drops by my office to request
a leave of absence to write a book. I patiently explain that
book-writing is agony — slow, lonely, frustrating work that,
unless you are a very rare exception, gets a lukewarm review (if
any), reaches a few thousand people and lands on a remaindered
shelf at Barnes & Noble. I recount my own experience as a book
failure — two incompletes, and I’m still paying back a sizable
advance with a yearly check to Simon & Schuster that I think of
not as a burden but as bail.
But still the reporters — and editors, too — keep coming to sit in
my office among the teetering stacks of Times-written books that I
mean to read someday and to listen politely to my description of
book-writing Gethsemane, and then they join the cliff-bound
Off they go to write books about wars, books about spies, books
about diplomacy. Books about basketball, books about China and,
coming soon, a book about basketball in China. Half a dozen books
exploring aspects of the recent financial meltdown. One (and one
more pending) about George W. Bush; one (and another pending)
about the Obama family. We do cookbooks, travel books, puzzle
books and movie guides. A book explaining the English. A book
explaining the French. Books about The New York Times. We do
biographies (Whittaker Chambers, Edward Kennedy, Virgil Thomson,
Einstein) and memoirs (growing up in Alabama, growing up in
Liberia, growing up Catholic). Cancer. Jazz. Physics. Pipe organs.
Marriage. The weather.
Two editors were writing books about their dogs. At the same time!
Over on the Op-Ed page, where I am migrating in September, every
columnist except one has written a book or two or three, though
only one is closing in on William Safire's 20-something output.
I’ve learned interesting things from the books of my staffers. I
learned that I employed a financial writer who got himself so deep
in debt he couldn't make his mortgage payments, a media columnist
who had been a crack addict and a restaurant critic with a history
of eating disorders. (To those who found these cases problematic,
I replied that there is no better qualification for writing about
life in all its complexity than having lived it.)
I confess I have not set a great example. I signed two book
contracts, after all, and although I fulfilled neither of them, I
did manage a short biography of Nelson Mandela for “young
readers,” pardon the oxymoron, and I’ve written a few
introductions for compilations of Times material. The Times covers
books, reviews books, ranks books and publishes books. We are
We indulge our writers because we want the talent happy, and
because a little of their prestige accrues to The Times. But we do
so at a cost. Books mean writers who are absent or distracted from
daily journalism, writers who have to be replaced when they leave
their reporting beats and landed somewhere when they return. There
is the tricky relationship between what they unearth for their
books and what goes into the paper. There is the awkwardness of
reviewing books by colleagues — and the greater awkwardness of not
reviewing them. There is the resentment of those left behind to
take up the slack, especially where fat advances have been paid.
So, why aren’t books dead yet? It helps that e-books are booming.
Kindle and Nook have begun to refashion the economics of the
medieval publishing industry: no trucks, no paper, no returns or
But that does not explain why writers write them. Writers write
them for reasons that usually have a little to do with money and
not as much to do with masochism as you might think. There is real
satisfaction in a story deeply told, a case richly argued, a
puzzle meticulously untangled. (Note the tense. When people say
they love writing, they usually mean they love having written.)
And it is still a credential, a trophy, a pathway to “Charlie
Rose” and “Morning Joe,” to conferences and panels that Build Your
Brand, to speaking fees and writing assignments. After Brian’s
book, he will be an even more stellar Stelter.
His book, by the way, will investigate another durable old medium
— morning television. It will come in both print and electronic
formats, but he confesses, “I’m sure I’ll prefer it as a hardcover.”
Sigh. It will never end.
Bill Keller is executive editor of The New York Times.
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