Text is forever. Books are not.

A response to Where’s the Bailout for Publishing, by Stephen Carter:

A book is forever. A screen of text is not.

So says Stephen Carter, at The Daily Beast in his post, Where’s the Bailout for Publishing?

I would say he has it backwards: online is forever. Books are made of glue and paper, mostly of the high-acid type that quickly turns into so much dust and pulp. I have whole shelves doing so before my eyes, particularly the ones I had in Thailand, where the climate is particularly merciless to cheaply-made books. They’re churned out by a publishing industry mostly concerned with this quarter’s bottom line, not eternity. Pulp that quickly returns to pulp.

No, if anything stands a chance of being “forever” (which I take to mean “lasting a long time in many places”, not an ubiquitous eternity), it is an online posting. Like Carter’s. (Or this). Disseminated across ten thousand servers and a hundred million hard drives around the globe, once you hit that “publish” button, there’s no calling it back.

And a book, once out there, cannot be recalled. The author who changes his mind cannot just take down the page.

He can, however, prevent new copies from being printed. Good luck with that on the internet. Barring some global catastrophe that causes an eternal blackout, everything that has ever been up on the internet is being copied, every day, by servers all over the planet, such as at the Internet Archive, and will be preserved indefinitely. There’s no getting it back: if you put it on the internet, you give it away.

A book matches perfectly the ideal of reflection. The tougher the text, the more reflective we must be in absorbing it. This suggests the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing—and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share.

I agree whole-heartedly with this sentiment. But a book doesn’t have to be a paper book: I see no reason why an e-book, for instance, can’t be just as much a reflective experience as a paper book. I read Little Dorrit on my Kindle. I don’t think I’m any the worse off for it.

To be fair, Carter seems to object strictly to reading books off a computer screen. I’ve only done this once, when I’d downloaded a book and lacked the printer ink. So I read it off my laptop. Which, I should add, was not connected to the internet. It was all right. I’d rather have an e-book or a paper book, but I’d do it again if it was either that or read nothing.

But on an average day online, I probably read, conservatively, 50,000 words. That’s half your average novel off a screen. If I don’t read whole books, online, it’s only because I’m not conditioned to do so. And there are all those neat links to jump to and emails to answer and Facebook status updates to make … but this is not saying anything about reading off a screen itself. If there were a computer monitor that incorporated eInk and I had a comfortable chair, I bet I could get through Anna Karenina just fine.

Democracy is not alone in its need for the book. It is no accident that the great Western religions rely heavily on sacred texts—texts, moreover, that believers are able to touch and feel and carry about. The weight and heft of a Bible, its solidity, itself implies eternity.

As Carter goes on to note, believers were not able to “touch and feel and carry about” their sacred texts until the advent of the codex, or the modern book, courtesy Mr. Gutenburg. A book is a much a piece of technology as a pencil or the Space Shuttle or the Sony Reader. It just so happens that these days it is likely yielding pride of place to, well, the iPhone.

That’s all right. Gutenburg’s codex no doubt horrified the Monkly Bible-Writing Union. (Surely the Scroll Makers’ Guild was outraged by the upstart monks with their fancy schmancy quills.) But it made possible the Reformation. Which led to all sorts of interesting results. Including the founding of Yale University, where Carter teaches. What is the digital revolution unleashing?

Who knows. But I think it’s a safe bet that it’s something equally remarkable.

A text is a text is a text. Once text appeared on cave walls. Then scrolls. Then hand-written vellum. Then codexes. Now … ereaders and computer screens. It’s still text. It’s still words flowing one after the other in a coherent fashion.

It is difficult to imagine lavishing the same loving attention on the computer screen.

Difficult, but not impossible, no? Refer to Monks, Bible-Writing Union of, and Scroll Makers’, Guild of.

Such results might bear out Miller’s concern that, in cyberspace, the text “jostles side by side” with a thousand other possible destinations for the attention. And the reader, of course, freely flees. … Perhaps, when we read online, the perceptive part of the brain is, in a sense, confused by the intention of the reader who sits in front of a screen. Is the reader there to gather and reflect upon information, or perhaps to check email or play a game?

I’m don’t disagree with Carter on this – the skittery Google mind has very different ends than the quiet library reader of A Treatise of Human Nature. Whether this is a inherently A Very Bad Thing is the question. Perhaps by reading and learning differently online people are pioneering new ways to, well, read and learn. Doubtless they will not be like the old ways, but it does seem to me a little Cassandra-ish to presume that new methods are causing “the decline of democracy”.

I can just picture the village elders leaned together to head-shake and tongue-click at those young’uns with their heads stuck in those newfangled books, wondering what is to be done, what is to be done. Why, if anyone can just read whatever they like at any time all by themselves out of that unfoldy thing, how are we going to keep up all the old traditions and ways? How are we going to keep our authority?

Answer: you aren’t. Thankfully.

Absent the codex, ideas would still be the province of a privileged priesthood.

And absent the internet, ideas would still be the province of “information providers”, publishers, newspapers, magazines, to say nothing of radio and TV, and the corporations that control(ed) most of them. Good riddance to that, I say.

No, I consider myself thrice-blessed, to be born in a free society, with free access to books, and now, free access to the internet. I find it somewhat baffling, considering the essentially democratic nature of the internet (thus far, at least), that Carter identifies “democracy” so closely with “books”. I think democracy is better allied with the free dissemination of information. Which, I hasten to add, includes books. From weighty hardcovers to iPhone a
Note: A slightly modified version of this post first appeared at Teleread.

2 thoughts on “Text is forever. Books are not.

  1. OneCrazyMama

    Couldn’t agree more…

    Freedom of information is paramount.

    There is one thing, however, with all of this information: the ability to process it.

    This is something picked up in childhood and adolescense. What is the real danger to knowledge? A decreased ability to wade through the information while thinking critically.

    GIGO, you know?

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