Long-time readers of this blog are no doubt aware of my deep love of libraries (historic, home, public, and Google), so it should surprise no one that the experience of reading a text (or of listening to music, which I'll get to later) is something about which I ponder as we move further into the digital age. Wilson Quarterly's multi-article feature on "The Future of the Book" from their Autumn 2009 issue has several articles on the subject. Christine Rosen's "In the Beginning Was the Word" and Tyler Cowen's "Three Tweets for the Web" are interesting, but "The Battle of the Books" by Alex Wright has this wonderful line:
"A hundred years after Gutenberg, only a relative handful of people had seen a printed book. Yet a mere 20 years after Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, more than a billion people have used a Web browser." (p. 64)
The potential of technology to transform the reader's relationship to texts is obvious enough, but Rebecca Rosen's sidebar "This Is Your Brain on the Web" approvingly quotes historian Marshall Poe's observation that "A book is a machine for focusing attention; the Internet is machine for diffusing it." While it's easy to blame the hyperlink-happy Internet for its users' attention problems, books have their own mechanisms for diffusing attention. Bibliographies, indices, appendices--not to mention footnotes and endnotes--all lead readers away from the original texts and toward others; hyperlinks merely deliver the results more immediately.
The immediacy of book-buying is made easier by various e-book devices, but not without detractors. Benjamin Dangl explain "Why I'll Never Buy a Kindle" at AlterNet, writing that "a lot of book-readers, myself included, enjoy the smell and palpable history of a book from a library or used bookstore:"
There is something comforting about the shared experience of reading a physical book many others have read, and will read in the future. I like the story of a used book - a folded page, the markings on the margins, the hints at its past. Sure, sometimes they smell like cigarette smoke, but they can also smell like the places they've been, whether it's a dusty old used bookstore or the tropical funk of Asunción, Paraguay. You can't share a Kindle book and so history doesn't cling to it the same way.
Alan Kaufman hyperventilates at HuffPo, calling the Kindle "A Concentration Camp of Ideas:"
Today's hi-tech propagandists tell us that the book is a tree-murdering, space-devouring, inferior form that society would be better off without. In its place, they want us to carry around the Uber-Kindle.
The hi-tech campaign to relocate books to Google and replace books with Kindles is, in its essence, a deportation of the literary culture to a kind of easily monitored concentration camp of ideas, where every examination of a text leaves behind a trail, a record, so that curiosity is also tinged with a sense of disquieting fear that some day someone in authority will know that one had read a particular book or essay. This death of intellectual privacy was also a dream of the Nazis. And when I hear the term Kindle, I think not of imaginations fired but of crematoria lit.
Technology's effect on the experience of music listening is somewhat similar. A friend pointed me toward this Boston Globe piece on music collectors, where Jeremy Eichler writes "I've been thinking not only about the virtues of high-tech listening but also about what's been lost in our headlong sprint into the digital future:"
This is not a Luddite's lament, or a cri de coeur about the significantly reduced audio quality of those compressed MP3 files. I love having more music at arm's reach than ever before, I love taking it with me wherever I go. But I do find myself wondering why, exactly, collecting music now means so much less.
Divorced from the physical object, collecting should mean less; listening, however, means as much as ever. Although it is "extremely hard to fetishize an MP3" in comparison to older (and more physically imposing) media, the downside to digitization is that "A digital file that lives on our computer is immaterial and deracinated, shorn of context, not to mention liner notes:"
The personal aspects loom large for many collectors, and a home library becomes a kind of autobiography, an index of one's quirks, passions, and adventures. [...]
Yet it is not only the object itself, but also the process of bringing it into our lives that has changed. For a real collector, the hunt to find an object can at once take on the dimensions of sport, art, and life's quest. Even a casual music lover can appreciate the feeling of working hard to track down a particular recording, thumbing through the bins, or scouring the holdings of used-music stores.
That is certainly true in my case, the most memorable being a lengthy quest for a recording of Shostakovich's "Novorossiisk Chimes." After finally locating a copy, my hour-long drive home (in a CD-less car) seemed interminable; my pleasure at shaking the walls when first listening to it was that much sweeter by the contrast with the preceding silence. Is our experience of texts and music tied to their media, or merely temporarily anchored by them? Will we value that experience as highly as we move toward constant accessibility?
I'm still not sure.