Thursday, March 01, 2012

Books, Borges and Those Internet Predictions

by Cara Meadows

For many bookworms, there really is no comparison: a real hardback made of paper and properly bound beats any other manifestations of intellectual content hands down.

Witness, however, this ironic observation seen not long ago on the online social network Twitter, and which went something along the lines of: "There's nothing like the feel and smell of a first-generation Kindle!" Electronic books have clearly arrived in force – and it's not possible to miss how they too originally struck their early adopters.

How quickly technology advances – and yet, in some ways, how slowly too.

The virtues of an analog world

The analog world, that world beloved of the bookworms, has – more often than not – been popularly judged as occupying a far less resilient place than that of the digital. Smartphones, PCs, PDAs, e-book readers – all these very physical objects seem to many unpracticed, and particularly young, eyes to sustain a presence much closer to the permanence that was the Victorian Industrial Revolution than the fragility of Dead Sea Scrolls.

Yet the Dead Sea Scrolls survived where many engineering feats of the 19th century have not. Who, then, is to say which is the more permanent?

Traditional books in their very many forms have often lasted for centuries. Other more modern forms of intellectual content, however, find sustaining their integrity rather more of a challenge. Remember that Sony Betamax video recorder you lovingly invested in all those decades ago? How many of its videotapes can you now play and enjoy? Either the tapes themselves have disintegrated under the weight of mere decades or the recorder itself has long ago given up the technological ghost. All that's left to remind you of the experiences you once enjoyed is the recliner sofa you used to curl up on.

Or there's that digital music collection which cost thousands of dollars to build up – only to be totally incompatible with your brand new player.

On the other hand, what about those shelves creaking under all those books? How old is the oldest edition? A century? Maybe two?

When was the last time you needed to recharge that collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories? Or replace a damaged paperback because you'd dropped it? Or pay all over again for the loss of an entire collection of whatever it might be because for some unfathomable reason a wretched electronic device no longer wants to load its content properly?

The birth pains of the digital world

All the above examples – and very many more – are obviously the birth pains of a brave new world. This world talks to us of interconnectedness – and it's true: whilst an electronic PDF file may not be the kindest thing on the eye, the ability to not only send but also limitlessly search a 300-page document in a split-second click of a mouse should not be underestimated.

It does, however, bring its own very complex challenges. The recent battles over SOPA and PIPA here in the US and elsewhere have shown that the tension between the singularity of a real book – or, for that matter, the old-fashioned videotape or vinyl LP – and the capacity online content has to almost infinitely reproduce itself is not, in the short-term, going to be easily resolved; nor perhaps will it ever be – at least, not to everyone's satisfaction.

The Babel we've inherited

In the real world of real books, meanwhile, the Argentine writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges seems to have predicted some aspects of the latter-day Internet as long ago as 1941, in his astonishing story "The Library of Babel" . Here, a massive library of interconnected rooms contains all the possible versions of a 410-page book:

Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books.

The similarities are, indeed, striking – at least for anyone able to see beyond the fireworks of unthinking engagement. Just imagine, in fact, what the proponents of SOPA might one day have to say about a library which contained millions of slightly different versions of one of their favorite movie titles. Perhaps such libraries already exist.

In this brave new generation of interconnected content, where self-publishing and self-revelation have become the norm, the massive and currently unstoppable flow of information still awaits the ancient organizer and filter roles which the noble profession of librarian continues valiantly to provide. While so much of what is now done in the book-publishing and intellectual-content trades seems to resist useful differentiation and observation, there will surely come a time when the traffic becomes simply untenable. Whether this will lead to a restriction on its production and movement, as those in favor of SOPA and PIPA might argue in favor of, or, on the other hand, to a greater importance being placed on the value which librarians everywhere add for their users is difficult to predict.

Meanwhile, those who love books in all their shapes, sizes and forms must continue to preach to those who – in a hyperlinked age – might have forgotten the pleasures of being walked down a path of writerly ingenuity and spirit.

A PDF may fly round the world in a second and find its keywords perfectly searched in the blink of an eye – but a real book commands its readers to hold onto its wisdom for a lifetime, and is never forgotten by those who may stumble across its beauty.

Bio: Cara Meadows is a writer and researcher living in London. She has five years experience in the industry and has spent a lot of time traveling with her job. She specializes in publishing and marketing but is happy to write about just about anything.

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