Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Battle of the Books Redux

Battle of the BooksWhen I began this article, it was to be nothing more than a review of the new Amazon Kindle I recently purchased. Instead, the period since I acquired it and this writing has given that little time for deeper reflection uncommon in the typical review. However, I will quickly give the appearances of a review.
Having tried both the Sony PRS-700, and now its chief rival, they are tied in my heart for prominence. I will not descend to the gutter, as many feel necessary, and denigrate one at the expense of the other. In fact, I feel blessed to live in an age when any such device is available, whatever limitations they may have for the moment. The last time mankind knew such a revolution in the exchange of ideas was five-hundred years ago when a little German goldsmith attempted a faster means of producing icons for credulous pilgrims.
I am of course speaking of Johannes Gutenberg and his seemingly accidental printing press. Like the new e-book technology, Gutenberg’s press was an odd transition, at first glance appearing like a wine press, which it was indeed inspired by. The method he invented was so revolutionary that its creator did all he could to hide the fact, apparently for fear of scaring off potential buyers. His bibles were handed over to the illuminators to be brightly painted (the lack of color being a major complaint then as now) and made for all the world to appear as written manuscripts. These early books are known as Incunabula, meaning out of the cradle, and represent that awkward phase before any new technology works out the kinks.
Likewise, we have entered a period of digital Incunabula, and as this new child begins to take baby steps, there are many who would wish to knock it down simply because it has yet to brake out into a run. I believe this is less a dislike of the new reading than it is a fear that the child shall one day stalk their beloved book stores and libraries like a colossus, leaving them like Cassius to: “peep and look about for dishonorable graves.”
The e-book’s critics lack an understanding of the history of their medium. They cite digital piracy as a major drawback to any real adaptation by the publishing industry as a whole. Pirates were a problem for early printers as well, but this did not hamper their profits and, in time led to the development of copyright law and international cooperation. However, such technical concerns over-shadow what are deeper intellectual ones.
What is being “changed” is not merely a matter of technology but one of mind-set. The scholarly habits and traditions of five-hundred years are seemingly at threat, and to the true bibliophile this is the greater matter.
It led me to recall that piece of satire by Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books. Written at a time of similar conflicts, it treated the debate between old and new. A battle breaks out in St. James’s Palace in the Kings library between the “ancients” and the “moderns”. The episode encapsulates the argument over whether modern knowledge had surpassed that of the ancient writers and, though Swift had no ultimate position for or against, it highlights for us today’s entrenched bias for the merits of tradition. This is not to say that tradition is bad and all innovation good but, as in Swift’s story, we can see the proponents of tradition often exaggerating their claims to deference.
As a lover of books myself, I am still astounded by my own quick turnabout on the matter. Computers played little if any role in my life until well after High School. I was curious about the Internet, but felt certain it held no wonders for me, until the ease it lent me in communication with absent friends worked upon my mind. All technology exists to ease the burdens of life, however, their presence too often becomes a comfort in and of its self and any attempt at change appears a threat.
This watchfulness is sometimes laudable, but in the end often becomes counterproductive. We do not hold the world to a way of thinking simply because we are too long accustomed to it. The fact that Gutenberg’s little wine press remained with us for four centuries virtually unchanged is a miracle of human genius, but even four hundred years does not guarantee a technologies survival. Nevertheless, I see a long future for print yet remaining, and don’t believe it necessary to kill the still reigning king of the Republic of Letters.
Perhaps it is time to call a truce and bring the books home from the battlefield, returning them to our hands where they may continue their purpose, regardless of their form.
Published on Teleread.org September 6, 2009.