The Book is Dead: Long Live the Book

And they smell good and feel good too!

In a fascinating article in the current New York Review of Books the historian Robert Darnton provides some good historical context to the hand-wringing over the instability of texts and the unreliability of information in the age of information overload. Darnton argues that texts have always been unstable and that news and information have always been unreliable . He provides historical perspective as well as a very revealing personal anecdote from his personal experience as a young journalist reporting on crime in Newark, New Jersey. (The police blotter coded certain deaths with a b for black which rendered them not newsworthy.)

That newspapers cannot be trusted is an old idea and in times of war it is expecially so. On the western front in the first world war, for example, the jingoistic war coverage of The Daily Mail newspaper led it to be renamed The Daily Liar by the soldiers in the trenches. Before there was The Onion there was The Wipers Times (a name with multiple possibilities not entirely confined to the army’s pronunciation of Ypres.)

Produced by British troops on the western front it was a satirical take on the war and a commentary on the misinformation of the press and the jingoism of newspapers like the Daily Mail – parodied as The Daily Liar. The sub -head reads (“Non-Political, Non-Sensical” –  rather like a self proclaimed comedic “no-spin zone” before the invention of the word spin to mean lies, manipulation and disinformation.)

Darnton effortlessly draws together the history of history of information technology from the beginning of writing around 4000 BCE to Google’s partnership with great libraries to create digital and searchable on line libraies (In 2006 Google signed agreements with five great research libraries—the New York Public, Harvard, Michigan, Stanford, and Oxford’s Bodleian—to digitize their books.)

But there’s more to books that the words they contain as any book lover or collector will attest. They feel good and they give off special smells. And Darnton comments on that aspect of bibliophilia as well. He even reports a statistic and an innovative solution:

According to a recent survey of French students, 43 percent consider smell to be one of the most important qualities of printed books—so important that they resist buying odorless electronic books. CaféScribe, a French on-line publisher, is trying to counteract that reaction by giving its customers a sticker that will give off a fusty, bookish smell when it is attached to their computers.

Darnton is a booklover and he writes tellingly of the pleasures of old books and the evidence of their production:

When I read an old book, I hold its pages up to the light and often find among the fibers of the paper little circles made by drops from the hand of the vatman as he made the sheet—or bits of shirts and petticoats that failed to be ground up adequately during the preparation of the pulp. I once found a fingerprint of a pressman enclosed in the binding of an eighteenth-century Encyclopédie—testimony to tricks in the trade of printers, who sometimes spread too much ink on the type in order to make it easier to get an impression by pulling the bar of the press.

But those textual joys do not blind him to the value that digitalizing old books means in terms of access. It used to be only scholars in rarefied reading rooms wearing gloves could read those texts. When anyone with a mind to do so may now:

… search, navigate, harvest, mine, deep link, and crawl … through millions of Web sites and electronic texts. At the same time, anyone in search of a good read can pick up a printed volume and thumb through it at ease, enjoying the magic of words as ink on paper. No computer screen gives satisfaction like the printed page. But the Internet delivers data that can be transformed into a classical codex. It already has made print-on-demand a thriving industry, and it promises to make books available from computers that will operate like ATM machines: log in, order electronically, and out comes a printed and bound volume

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