One of the privileges of advanced age is the freedom to say whatever you want to whomever you want. One of the dangers of saying whatever you want, of course, is the risk that you’ll look like a clueless blowhard. Case in point: John Updike at BookExpo America 2006.
While ostensibly promoting his new book Terrorist, Updike decided to take the opportunity to remind the publishing industry that they remain, if I may quote Kirk, firmly mired in “Nixon-era technology”. Updike railed, specifically, against Kevin Kelly’s New York Times Magazine article from last week — the article, not ironically, titled “Scan This Book!”
Unlike the commingled, unedited, frequently inaccurate mass of “information” on the Web, he [Updike] 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.”
Kelly’s article, of course, focused on the extensive (and often expensive) undertakings to digitize libraries and other book collections. To make the books available to consumers in a variety of formats. To save many books from extinction. Kelly reminds us both that the idea of collecting all the knowledge in the world is not new and that it failed once:
At one time or another, the library [of Alexandria] held about half a million scrolls, estimated to have been between 30 and 70 percent of all books in existence then. But even before this great library was lost, the moment when all knowledge could be housed in a single building had passed.
Already we have lost far too much knowledge because the “book”, made of flimsy and flammable paper, is not an inherently durable format. It is a space-consuming item. The resources required to house the sheer number of books published in a single year, much less throughout human history, is not physically achievable. We need a better solution.
No, we have a better solution.
While I love my books (as anyone who has ever tried to navigate around them in my home can attest), I am not precious about the traditional format. To suggest that paper, ink, and binding make a book is to, frankly, forget that it’s the words that matter. The ideas. The story being told. Our species comes from an oral storytelling tradition. We have embraced reading with a passion, but anyone who’s looked at the past half-century knows that television, another visual medium, was embraced with even more fervor. Today’s youth are abandoning their televisions for computers and other devices. Digital is not a fad and all the adoration you have for your books won’t change the fact that choice is required. Now.
John Updike knows how to write, and his books are considered classics. But how far into the future will his physical, ink-and-paper novels be accessible? Will they always remain in print? Will there be a day when even the novels of the great John Updike are locked away because the paper will crumble into dust?