“The problems with books are many,” intones the blogosphere’s resident philistine, Jeff Jarvis. “They are frozen in time without the means of being updated and corrected. They have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources. They create, at best, a one-way relationship with a reader … Print is where words go to die.”
Gee whiz. I used to kind of like books. I liked that they were “frozen in time” and couldn’t be “updated and corrected.” I liked how they created a “one-way relationship” with me, the reader. I never found them to be cut off from “related knowledge, debates, and sources.” In fact, I often found that words were at their most alive when they found their way through a writer’s pen into print. What a nincompoop I was.
Jarvis’s post is a hamfisted gloss on Kevin Kelly’s New York Times article about how the digitization of text will allow books to “seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together [into] a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas.” (It’s such a big thought that it can only be expressed through two metaphors.) I gave my own thoughts on Kelly’s piece last week. As Andrew Keen points out, the Washington Post reports today on John Updike’s response to Kelly’s article in a speech at BookExpo America in Washington on Saturday. After quoting a few passages from the article, Updike bit back:
Updike went on at some length, heaping scorn on Kelly’s notion that authors who no longer got paid for copies of their work could profit from it by selling “performances” or “access to the creator.” (“Now as I read it, this is a pretty grisly scenario.”)
Unlike the commingled, unedited, frequently inaccurate mass of “information” on the Web, he said, “books traditionally have edges.” But “the book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets. So, booksellers,” he concluded, “defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity.”
“Edges” is the right word. It all comes down, I think, to two different visions of culture. One is a vision of integrity – of the integrity of individuals and their works. These are the building blocks of culture. In combining them, you do not destroy their integrity, or erase their edges. It’s their edges that give the entire construction its form and its solidity: edges butted up against other edges. The other is a vision of disintegration. It devalues the individual and his work, cherishing instead a dream of a communal higher consciousness that dissolves all edges. Culture becomes a formless liquid, an “Eden of everything,” as Kelly puts it. But an Eden of everything is also, inevitably, an Eden of nothing.
The web is where culture goes to die.