[Marxism] Are books extinct?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 19 06:58:15 MDT 2011

NY Times Sunday Opinion July 16, 2011
Books and Other Fetish Objects

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

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 
staff back!

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 
lemmings anyway.

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 
total enablers.

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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