On books, and the death of print

| October 18, 2011

For years I’ve proudly declared myself a print enthusiast, the kind of person who cringes when hearing the phrase “print is dead,” and yet I have a perhaps morbid (ahem) fascination with the e-book reader debate.  In particular, I find it curious how many New York Times writers publish nervous pieces about their worry over the death of the object they hold most dear–and I tend to cheer these writers on.  Granted, I read these articles online, because I find the printed newspaper unwieldy–the print rubs off on your fingers, the pages are too large, and after you’re done you’ve got a pile of thinly sliced dead tree to recycle.  But reading an entire book digitally seems dreary to me, and riddled with limitations.  Plus, I love my books.  Wooden shelves overflowing with books cover nearly all of the wall space in my apartment–when I feel the need to decorate, I consider another bookshelf.  When I sit on the couch, surrounded by brightly colored jackets, I feel comforted, as though the books are… well, if not friends, a little like friends. Could a digital reader inspire a homey, cuddly sensation, or is the e-reader just a convenient, robotic substitute?

What happens to footnotes, for instance?   In Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote? author Alexandra Horowitz describes her horror at discovering the e-book version of her book about dogs doesn’t include her footnotes.  She discovered this after receiving angry letters her readers sent her, accusing her of intentionally poisoning her dog.  Without the footnotes, her readers only read her story about giving her dog grapes, but not the footnote where she acknowledges the small levels of toxicity grapes contain.  Horowitz goes on to describe the joys of reading Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine (which, as an aside, I recommend everyone read.  Baker delights in minutia in a dizzying, gleeful fashion).  Footnotes abound in The Mezzanine. Horowitz points out that a hyperlink, the digital equivalent of a footnote, is not the same because there’s nothing in particular compelling you to click it, whereas a footnote is a visible component of any text, hard to miss.  Horowitz is right, of course, but surely those who format e-books will realize their error soon and include them.  Right?

Similarly, last February, The New York Times published a piece about the death of annotating, entitled Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in the Margins, which discusses a brief history of marginalia studies, and mentions famous margin-writers throughout history (Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Nelson Mandella).  There are societies and clubs devoted to celebrating and preserving works that include hand-written annotations in the margins, like the Caxton Club, a group founded in 1895 and still growing strong–they held a symposium and recently published a book called Other People’s Stories–a compilation of works marginalia. Considering the wonders of marginalia, I can’t help but recall the scene in Heathers (the 80’s movie starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater) where Veronica and J.D. flip through Heather’s “meaningfully marked up copy of Moby Dick” (quotation by memory) for clues on how to make her death look like a suicide.  Somehow, their clicking through her Sony e-reader just wouldn’t pack the same punch.  There is something human and tangible about seeing a person’s handwritten mark on the page–far more interesting than it would be to read an author’s type-written annotations in their preserved Kindle after their death.  Will anyone want to preserve authors’ Kindles?

Well, maybe.  Emory University’s Salmon Rushdie archive holds Rushdie’s complete works–including handwritten journals, book covers, manuscripts, and most intriguingly, his hard drives. Visitors to the archive can see his computer screen the way he saw it when drafting his works, including his sticky notes, comments to himself, and even his journal entries detailing his thoughts about the technology change and how computers affected his writing. His is among a new rash of archives collecting “born digital” material.  The New York Times article goes on to note the challenges digital data poses to preservationists, and the possibilities digital material presents researchers.  As writer Patricia Cohen points out, “To the Emory team, simulating the author’s electronic universe is equivalent to making a reproduction of the desk, chair, fountain pen and paper that, say Charles Dickens used, and then allowing visitors to sit and scribble notes on a copy of an early version of ‘Bleak House.’”  Pretty cool, right?

Maybe we’re all being a little hysterical about the print is dead cry.  Perhaps every format has its role to play.  Print, after all, is a technology.  Consider another New York Times article, Books and other Fetish Objects, in which writer James Gleick makes a claim for access, speed of delivery, and the fact that more researchers can study an object if you can view it online, rather than making a trip to another state or country where a rare original document is held.  He challenges historians to stop fetishizing objects when what’s most important is the information the object carries.  And interestingly, he ends his article with a reference to death: “An object like this — a talisman — is like the coffin at a funeral. It deserves to be honored, but the soul has moved on.” I disagree with him, but I think his article is meant to serve as a wake up call, a plea for book enthusiasts to lighten up.

Last week, I ordered a Kindle.  I ordered it because I’m intrigued to see what it’s like to carry a slim, practically weightless object on the subway, rather than the pounds of books I tend to carry in my bag.  Traveling from home to school, school to work, and back home again with my backpack, I feel like a 5th grader or an encyclopedia salesman. We’ll see how it goes with the Kindle, but regardless, the paperback book friends I already own are staying right where they are on the shelves.

(And two days ago, The New York Times published an article about Amazon’s new role as a publishing house.  Ah!  Is this the death of publishing, too?  Questions for another time.)