“Keep your edges dry”

“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.

22 thoughts on ““Keep your edges dry”

  1. Sid Steward

    I can’t get “hamfisted gloss” out of my mind. It makes me think of glazed ham.

  2. Scott Karp

    Nick, you know you’re going to get your ass handed to you for this one. But here’s a consolation:

    In the early 20th century, there were people who really believed that communism would work. It took a century of unfortunate history (Stalin, etc.) to demonstrate that an ideology that devalues the individual is fundamentally contrary to human nature.

    This too shall pass.

  3. Graham Hill


    There is nothing I like more than retiring with an interesting new book – or a pile of pages printed out from various websites – to a quiet corner or my local coffee shop to read.

    Sometimes life’s simpler pleasures are its most enjoyable. And its most educational too.

  4. Kevin Kelly

    I like edges. I love books. I honor individuals. Books, and individuals, are not the only things with edges. What is the web but endless edges and no center. It’s edges all the way. Edges forever!

    I’m eager to get hold of Updike’s full text because he hasn’t written much I don’t like.

  5. Scott Wilson

    I understand that “either/or” makes for more fun argument, but really, is anyone honestly buying either of these propositions? Can’t we recognize that there are some vastly different sorts of information that have traditionally gone into book form over the years, and that perhaps some are better suited to it than others?

    I would shudder to consider reading constantly revised fiction–look at where Star Wars Episode IV ended up after such fiddling became possible with film–and I think Kant and friends would be unmanageable if subject to constant revision. There are clearly works which stand best frozen in their one ideal form. It’s like sculpture, keep chipping away trying to perfect them, and eventually you’re left with nothing.

    On the other hand, I’m forever grateful that I’m not stuck reading last year’s version of Windows 2003’s Administrator Guide, or any book whatsoever on security, or travel guides, and that I am not shelling out $600 a year to stay current with my Encyclopedia Britannica set. I think there are some pretty clear advantages to web publishing, just as there are to traditional print media, and neither have anything to do with a cultural visions of integrity or disintegration.

  6. Brad

    You’re dropping atom bombs on ants. The problem with paper books is not that they are unchanging and unlink-able, but that they go unread — and post-paper technology isn’t going to solve that.

  7. Alex Wright

    Umberto Eco draws the distinction between “books to be read” – like novels, poetry and serious non-fiction – and “books to be consulted” – like dictionaries and encyclopedias. He argues (and I agree) that the Web is no place for the former; but that the latter seem to flow naturally into hypertext. This strikes me as a useful rubric for thinking about the strengths of print and electronic media, without requiring us to stake out strident positions in favor of one or the other.

  8. SteveEisner

    Semi-(un)related ;)

    Nick, it’s not just culture that’s at stake here. I bet you never realized that “lacking advanced broadband, Seattle is unlikely to maintain a competitive economy, a vibrant culture, quality schools and efficient government.”


    This pre-emptive historical revisionism somehow implies that we’ve got ’em, but are soon going to lose ’em? Maybe it’s because we won’t have access to those new liquid books. Unless of course we deploy broadband, in which case it’s back to status quo.

  9. mythusmage

    This too shall pass? ‘Bout the same time traffic lights disappear. The Internet is too damn useful. It’s not yet as useful as a good library, but it can always improve.

    I like a good book. But it’s not the only way to learn things, or to entertain yourself. Books are best used in conjunction with other sources of information to supplement what the book says, and which update and correct what the book holds. As many a professor has said of Wikipedia, “Good place to start, but don’t use it alone to support your doctoral thesis.”

    It aint gonna kill you, and it aint gonna turn you into some crazed fool. It can give you more ways to learn than you ever had before.

    Now stop being such cats.

  10. Peter Evans-Greenwood

    Call me old fashioned, but I’ve always thought that culture is about shared stories. This has been true for a very long time, from the Dreamtime here in Australia though literature and pulp fiction.

    Even the domain I work in (technology, SOA, architecture, …) I find stories are central to my work, either in communicating with the client (showing that you understand their story) or even in building solutions (shareing the solution’s story with new members of the development team, management and–of course–the client). Technical luminaries like Rebecca Wirfs-Brock also treat the creative technology design processes as an act of story creation and telling.

    There’s something in the discipline required to take your ideas and form a narative, be it to argue a point or simply convey an idea. It forces you to put your thoughts in order, to ensure that you’ve covered all the bases, and to show where your story fits in relation to those that have came before it. It leads the audience on a journey from the first premise through to the conclusion. And it’s something thats missing from the link-fest that is most of the wiki/blog space. Technology has lowered the cost of publication and made it easier to chase references (both of which I’m greatful for), but they haven’t made it any easier to craft a narative.

    Edges show us where a narative starts and ends. Without edges, in the “single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas”, we just get a grey soup of concepts with no structure. Without the narative to provide us with the structure of shared stories we’re forced to revert to shared opinions.

    With opinions, people either “get it” or “don’t get it”. If you don’t “get it” then all you see is a mass of impenetrable buzz words, jargon and assumptions with no clear entry point; there’s no journey you can take from not “don’t get it” to “get it”. The people who “get it” aren’t attempting to explain or justify their position, or even make it easier for you even understand where they’re coming from. They’re raising the barrier for entry and creating an us-and-them mentally.

    Perhaps rather than creating communities web 2.0 is encouraging us to form cliques. It’s high school all over again, and this time we all want to be members of the in-crowd.

  11. JG

    This discussion makes me wish I knew a little bit more about how older cultures have dealt with things like this in the past. In particular, I am reminded of something like judaism. Now, I know next to nothing about judaism, but I am aware that there is both a written (“edge”?) and an oral (“fluid”? “talmud 2.0”?) component to their traditions. Their culture has been evolving for thousands of years, and the fluid has neither washed away the written, nor has the “edged” dammed the flow of the oral discussion and debate. It seems like both aspects of the culture are alive and well. Can we not manage something similar in our web culture? Or are we too young and immature to do so?

  12. Nick Carr

    A Note on the Unfrozen-in-Time Text of This Post: A few minutes after publishing this post, I decided, in a rare moment of verbal restraint, to remove a few words from it. The words were “the blogosphere’s resident philistine.” The cat, however, was already out of the RSS bag. So, in response to popular demand, I have reinstated those four words. Enjoy.

  13. John A Arkansawyer

    This really reminds me of the debate about folk music.

    In a slightly earlier period of folk studies, there was a belief that folks songs came from “the people” in a generalized, undifferntiated sense–folk got together and hung out and jammed and at the end of the night there was a new folk song.

    A more careful study showed that folk songs came from “the people” in a whole different way–one musican wrote a song and performed it, others heard the song and performed it with their alterations, others heard them and did the same, and versions of folk songs just fell like apples off that tree. (Leonard Cohen uses a different metaphor in Tower of Song, but then, he’s writing about being a consciously professional songwriter in the golden age of recorded music.)

    (I believe the same general process is true for folk stories as well, but I don’t know it for a fact.)

  14. Seth Finkelstein

    “philistine” seems like the wrong wrong, especially given that the posting is an echo of what Socrates said in Plato’s Phaedrus:

    Soc. I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

    Phaedr. That again is most true.

    Soc. Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power-a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten?

    Phaedr. Whom do you mean, and what is his origin?

    Soc. I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.

    Phaedr. You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which written word is properly no more than an image?

  15. Kevin Kelly

    “The web: a liquid fabric with endless edges.”

    Wonderous thing isn’t it? Seems so confusing at first. But I’m so glad you getting it, Nick!

  16. Sid Steward

    “Liquid fabric with endless edges” easily beats “hamfisted gloss” in the linguistic acrobatics category. Surprisingly, I found some of this fabric on eBay. They say that it’s invisible to fools, which might explain the disagreements. I’ve been outbid, but I’m still following it.

  17. Roger Sperberg

    The best way to indicate that you have changed your mind about some sentiment in a web-page like this is to surround the old (“The blogosphere’s resident philistine”) expression with start- and end- strikethrough tags. Then you acknowledge your old assessment and also your new, more-considered one.

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