Digitization and the fulfillment of the book

My colleague in the library here at Messiah College, Jonathan Lauer, has a very nice essay in the most recent Digital Campus edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Jonathan makes an eloquent defense of the traditional book over and against the googlization and ebookification of everything.   He especially employs an extended metaphor drawn from the transition to aluminum bats in various levels of baseball to discuss his unease and reservations about the shifts to electronic books and away from print that is profoundly and rapidly changing the nature of libraries as we’ve known them.  The essay is more evocative than argumentative, so there’s a lot of different things going on, but a couple of Jonathan’s main points are that enhancements we supposedly achieve with digitization projects come at a cost to our understanding of texts and at a cost to ourselves.

In the big leagues, wooden bats still matter. Keeping print materials on campus and accessible remains important for other reasons as well. Witness Andrew M. Stauffer’s recent Chroniclearticle, “The Troubled Future of the 19th-Century Book.” Stauffer, the director of the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship, cites several examples of what we all know intuitively. “The books on the shelves carry plenty of information lost in the process of digitization, no matter how lovingly a particular copy is rendered on the screen,” he writes. “There are vitally significant variations in the stacks: editions, printings, issues, bindings, illustrations, paper type, size, marginalia, advertisements, and other customizations in apparently identical copies.” Without these details, discernible only in physical copies, we are unable to understand a book’s total impact. Are we so easily seduced by the aluminum bat that we toss all wooden ones from the bat bag?

Let’s also acknowledge that our gadgets eventually program us. History teaches us that technologies often numb the very human capacities they amplify; in its most advanced forms, this is tantamount to auto-amputation. As weavers lost manual dexterity with their use of increasingly mechanized looms during the Industrial Revolution, so we can only imagine what effect GPS will have on the innate and learned ability of New York City cabbies to find their way around the five boroughs. Yet we practice auto-amputation at our own peril. We dare not abandon wooden bats for aluminum for those endeavors that demand prolonged attention, reflection, and the analysis and synthesis that sometimes lead to wisdom, the best result of those decidedly human endeavors that no gadget can exercise.

I have a lot of sympathy for Jonathan’s position, things like the revamping of the New York Public Library leaving me with a queasy hole in my stomach.  I’ve had a running conversation with Beth Transue, another of our librarians, about our desire to start leading alumni tours of the world’s great libraries, but if we’re going to do so we better get it done fast because most of them won’t be around anymore in a few more years, at least if the NYPL and its budgetary woes are anything to judge by.

At the same time, I think Jonathan overstates his case here.  I don’t think serious thinkers are assuming we’ll get rid of books entirely.  Although I currently think we are already living in what I’ve called an E-plus world, print will continue to be with us serving many different purposes. Jason Epstein over at the NYRB has a blog on this fact and progrognosticating the likely future and uses of the traditional book seems to be a growth industry at the moment. I don’t think the average student is too terribly interested in the material textuality that Jonathan references above, nor for that matter is the average scholar, the vast majority of whom remain interested in what people wrote not how the publishers chose to package it.  But those issues will continue to be extremely important for cultural and social historians, and there will be some forms of work that will only possibly be done with books.  Just as it is a tremendous boon to have Joyce’s manuscript’s digitized, making them available for the general reader and the scholar who cannot afford a trip to Ireland, authoritative interpretations of Joyce’s method, biography, and life’s work will still have to make the trip to Ireland to see the thing for themselves, to capture what can’t be captured by a high resolution camera.

That having been said, who would say that students studying Joyce should avoid examining the digitized manuscripts closely because they aren’t “the genuine article.”  Indeed, I strongly suspect that even the authoritative interpretations of those manuscripts will increasingly be a commerce between examination of the physical object and close examination of digitized objects since advanced DH work shows us time and time again that computerized forms of analysis can get at things the naked eye could never see.  So the fact that there are badly digitized copies of things in google books and beyond, shouldn’t belie the fact that there are some massively important scholarly opportunities here.

Jonathan’s second point is about the deeply human and quasi-spiritual aspects of engagement with traditional books that so many of us have felt over the years.  There’s something very true about this. It is also true that our technologies can result in forms of self amputation.  Indeed, if we are to take it to heart we need to admit that the technology of writing and reading itself is something that involves self-amputation.  Studies have shown that heavy readers alter their brains, and not always in a good sense.  We diminish the capacity of certain forms of memory, literally making ourselves absent minded professors.   Other studies have suggested that persons in oral cultures have this capacity in heightened form, and  some people argue that this generation is far more visually acute than those that preceded it, developing new abilities because of their engagement with visual texts.  So, indeed, our technologies alter us, and even result in self-amputation, but that is true of the traditional book as well as the internet.  This second is Jonathan’s larger claim since it seems to claim for traditional books as such a superiority in terms of something central to humanity as such. I am intrigued, with this argument that the book is superior for serious reflection and the quasi spiritual aspects of study that we have come to treat as central to the humanities.

I admit, I don’t buy it.

First, I admit that I’m just wary about attributing essential human superiorities to historical artifact and practices.  Homer as a collection of aural songs is not inherently inferior to the scrolls within which they were originally collected, then finding their apotheosis in the book form.  We have come to think of the book as exhibiting and symbolizing superior forms of humanity, but it’s not clear that book form was triumphant in the west because of these attributes.  Indeed, traditional Jews and others clearly think the scroll remains the superior spiritual form even to this day.  Rather, the codex triumphed for a variety of complicated reasons.  Partly Christian Churches for ideological reasons apparently wanted to distinguish their own writings from the writings of the Jews.  There may have been some more substantive reasons as well, though that’s not entirely clear: Anthony Grafton points out that many of the Christian innovations with the codex seemed to focus on the desire to compare different kinds of texts side by side (an innovation, I will point out, for which the internet is in many ways easily superior).  The codex also triumphed not because it was spiritually and intellectually superior but because it was, frankly, more efficient, cheaper, and easier to disseminate than its scrolly ancestors.  One good example is from the poet Martial who explicitly ties the selling of his poetry in codex form to making them easily and efficiently accessible to the common person:  “Assign your book-boxes to the great, this copy of me one hand can grasp.”

The entire trend of book history has been toward this effort to make texts and what they contain more readily and easily available to more and more people.  From the early clay tablets to the mass market paperback that let you carry Plato in your hip pocket, the thrust of the book has been toward broader and broader dissemination, toward greater and greater ease of use, toward cheaper and cheaper accessibility.  The goal of writing, even when that writing was imprisoned in libraries that only the initiated could enter as in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, has been open access.

The digitization that is occurring now comes to fulfill the book, not destroy it.

Secondarily, I guess I no longer believe fully in the spiritual or intellectual superiority of codex forms simply since it doesn’t comport with my experience.  As I do more and more of my reading of books with my various e-readers, I find that I have serious, contemplative, analytical, and synthetic engagements with all kinds of texts, from those hundreds of “pages” long and those not.  As I get used to the tools of various e-readers, theres almost nothing that can’t be accomplished in some way on an e-reader that is accomplished in traditional books.  Although I interact with texts differently now in a spatial sense, I am able to take fuller and more copious notes, I am able to mark texts more easily,  and if I can’t quite remember where something was in the book I can use a search engine to find not only a specific phrase or topic, but every single instance of that topic in the book.  Moreover, because every text represents an act of contemplation on and conversation with other texts, I can at the touch of a screen go and read for myself the interlocutors embedded within a book, just as those interested in Jonathan’s essay can touch my link above and decide for themselves whether I am reading him fairly.  Thus there are very obviously and seriously some ways in which e-readers are superior for serious analytical and interpretive readings of texts, or at least the equal to them.

All this having been said, I will say that there remains one way that I find the traditional paper book the clear superior to the e-book, and that has to do with my ability to make it mine.

I spoke a couple of days ago about the personal connection I felt to Kierkegaard in rereading him and discovering my many years of underlines, highlights and marginalia.  I even confess that I real Kimi Cunningham Grant’s new memoir on my iPad, but I still bought a hard cover at the reading–not because I thought I would be able to analyze it more effectively in hard cover, but because I wanted her to sign it for me.

This is a personal connection to the book that isn’t unimportant, but that is about my personal biography, and Kimi’s.  It’s not about the text, and frankly I doubt it will in the long run even be about literary history.  Some literary archivist somewhere is collecting all the shared comments on the Kindle version of Kimi’s book, and that massive marginalia will be fodder for some graduate student’s dissertation in a few decades.

I pity the poor graduate student who decides on such a project. But at least she won’t have to strain her eyes to decipher the handwriting.

6 thoughts on “Digitization and the fulfillment of the book

  1. Dermot McCabe

    There is a slight problem in reading Jonathan’s Essay: you have to pay money. Apart from that little hurdle which I refuse to jump, there is an aspect of reading from a computer screen that, for me at least, creates a mild sense of anxiety. It is very similar to the feelings I used to have as a student when I looked at what appeared to be an impossible amount of subjects and topics I needed to study before an examination. The same thing applies in a work situation and the only way to address what appears to be an unmanageable workload is to break it down to manageable tasks and to focus on those individual tasks one by one.

    When reading from a computer screen, I somehow cannot quite dismiss from my mind that behind this electronic screen is a gargantuan mountain of material/data/knowledge which I can never hope to even glance at. This mountain lurks in the background and casts a shadow over what I am engaged in. The codex, helps me to isolate completely a chunk of this mountain and sneak into a corner with it. I have a much more satisfying experience because there is a quantifiable mental task. There is a beginning and an end to it. I have a greater sense of completion when I read the printed book that does not send me off in a thousand other directions via hypertext links.

    I also have this feeling that If I could really be discriminating I might only need a few great books to fill my allotted time on this earth and learn all that one could hope to learn in that too brief a time. But what are those books?
    Perhaps we pay too much deference to book-learning anyway.
    In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay on Self reliance “His notebooks impair his memory, his libraries overload his wit;’ If it was true in Emerson’s time how much more does it apply to this Googlified world. Is there something here, a warning at least, for the Digital Humanities?

  2. Pingback: Book futures, or, apocalypse now. | Read, Write, Now

  3. Jonathan D. Lauer

    Dermot: I think my piece is accessible in ways other than a paid subscription to the Chronicle, but I may be wrong about that. Pete: Thanks for taking the time and effort to interact so thoroughly with my editorial. I hope this reply, like the essay, will be more evocative than argumentative.And since you paraphrased a scriptural text, a pronouncement by Jesus no less, I will begin in that vein by riffing on the Book of Common Prayer, a text both you and I use on at least a weekly basis: The codex book was, the codex book is, and the codex book will be. My essay is an effort to respond to Dylan’s challenge in “Working Man’s Blues” not to hang back, but to fight my best on the front line. For me the front line is the rapidly changing environment in which we librarians ply our trade. If anyone doubts there is a great deal of money to be made servicing our profession, they have never entered the exhibit hall at an American Library Association annual convention. With that enormous financial inventive comes a great deal of hype and obfuscation concerning the purported unqualified good of the latest technological (usually limited to electronic and digital technology, since the codex book is, after all, also a technology and an ingenious and durable one at that) innovation, often resulting eventually in silly press releases about this or that institution launching the latest “bookless” library and other nonsense. But the push in the direction of sanctifying the new and denigrating the established continues unabated. I am merely trying to point out the obvious, something that folks like Jeffrey Schnapp and Anthony Grafton do more eloquently than I, viz., we live now and will likely continue to live in a print plus not a post print world. To that I would add we live in a material world and no promotion of digitization or touting of clouds and cyberspace will change that. Cyberspace is computing capacity connected by wires. The cloud is a warehouse in New Jersey. Digital isn’t greener than print. In fact, careful analyses of that commonly held assumption suggest a far more complicated picture and one is that not at all encouraging from a sustainability perspective. We share much common ground and perspective, Pete, and you acknowledge that in your post. In the end, though, what I think you didn’t comment on enough in your response, and maybe my point was obscure, is that I am calling for balance and commonsense as we continue to live into the future of books and libraries. An earlier, longer version of my essay raised the very real issue of bandwidth and infrastructure, citing instances where even our largest, wealthiest higher education institutions are facing material constraints that have no easy or inexpensive fixes. Well, that’s enough for now. All best wishes. JDL

  4. bethtransue

    Pete, Thanks for your thoughtful response to Jonathan’s article. I read both your response, and Jonathan’s reply with much interest.

    I found it interesting that you term this an e-plus world, while Jonathan and I choose to use print-plus terminology. Is this a tomayto-tomahto argument or a major difference — we both end up somewhere in the middle. You linked to the recent study showing that students prefer digital to print. I was actually a little surprised by that study when it first came out because it was the first I’d seen with those results; I’m not sure if that study is a tipping point at this stage of ebook development or not. Other studies I’ve reviewed conclude that students prefer print books for academic research (while preferring ebooks for linear/leisure reading). Indeed, at the reference desk or in discussion with students and faculty, when pointing out our ebook collections, there is almost universally a response that they would prefer the print, unless some other factor is in play such as remote access. It creates an uneasy balance when determining which format to purchase for the present and future collection.

    I imagine a day where we will shift from print-plus to e-plus (or even e-only?). It is already happening within certain disciplines such as the sciences. One of my departments has basically said that ebooks are preferred when ordering new books, while other disciplines I work with deliberately choose print. Of course, the fact that purchasing an ebook for a library (versus for an individual) often costs 3x the cost for a print book becomes ever more important to our bottom line, as I don’t foresee an increase of our budget anytime soon!

    As you point out from the discussions at the ebooks symposium, ebooks serve specific uses better than print, while the opposite can also be true. I think that circles back around to Jonathan’s metaphor of wooden vs metal bats.

    Thanks for the opportunity to read and respond to this important issue. I’m headed back to spreadsheet land as I try to figure out how to afford and support both formats equally well in our budget allocations! 🙂


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