In the October 17th issue of the Wall Street Journal
there was a provocative piece concerning the new Kindle 2
, by Stephen Marche who often writes for Esquire
. In essence he accepts the revolutionary potential of the Kindle and proposes a new word, the "transbook," to describe the device and its cousins. I find the more humorous intonations of an "Omnium Gatherum" to be appropriate. I suspect his optimism and suggest he has his historical facts out of order and incomplete.
Mr. Marche happily describes the moment in history when the "Kindle" of another age was introduced: the codex. This wonderful device replaced the scroll ? a single roll of paper ? with what was essentially a bound volume of scrolls and was in fact the first true book, bringing to an end the tattered isolation of specific hand-written texts. This was revolutionary, indeed. What he fails to mention is that this was the very device which was used by authority to do away with the anarchy of the individual scroll, which might be produced by just any apostate who could write, and created the opportunity for organized sanction and approval (as well as improvement) of texts. The books of the Bible were thus codified by imprimatur. Heresy could thus be stamped out. It made the Pelagians among us very unhappy.
This was, in fact, the great and profound change that brought about the "dark ages." The authority of the Catholic Church was supreme and all dissent had to take place within the confines of its rule.
Mr. Marche recalls the monk Johannes Trithemius as a Benedictine scholar of the sixteenth century who opposed the printing press. He even compares him to our contemporary Nicholson Baker and that author's recent rants against the Kindle and its kin. But Mr. Baker's argument is more than just "the feel of the paper." Mr. Baker is a free man in a relatively open society who is worried over the further diminishment of his world, not its enlargement. And Trithemius was an occultist who recognized in the printing press the end of a more secretive society. His proto-Hogwarts School was an effort not only to garner knowledge but also to control it.
Mr. Marche then bemoans the heavy personal burden of accumulating individual volumes and the convenience of having 1500 titles in one relatively small device. He suggests a future where the "transbook" will provide access to "all text that is non-copyright, and to the purchase of every book in and out of 'print'" He says, "it's about what the book wants to be." It seems to me that this is the language of the true occultist, giving anthropomorphic power to a machine.
The reality is that the "transbook" will be the tool of particular interests, and with particular interests. The industry that currently produces the book will fade away, at first slowly, but then at a quickening pace, as its economic underpinning are kicked away. The cost of a single printed book will rise. The convenience of downloading text will overcome reservations. Copyrights will be re-written to serve the new paradigm. And texts which do not meet the approved standards of language, or political purpose, will be neglected and unavailable.
This condition already exists to a lesser degree. First amendment protections are already being restricted for literature not in "book" form. "Hate speech" is proscribed and defined by standards which suit the political interest of the moment. Criticism of certain religious faiths is outlawed as "bigotry." Specific words are forbidden and removed from texts. For those who agree with the specific prejudice being exorcised, all is well. But the open society suffers. The great Nat Hentoff has been warning us about this for decades.
How is it that we are to avoid this bowdlerizing castration of our literature when all text is under the immediate electronic thumb of "authority."
In How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman, the marvelous reach of the law of unintended consequences was described. The poorest country in Europe in the Seventeenth Century was torn by the Presbyterian reformation of John Knox. In the fervor of their beliefs, the Kirk fathers wanted every man, woman, and child to learn to read and thus have direct access to the word of God. Overlooked was a related consequence, having learned to read, every man, woman, and child would be able to read anything they chose. Within a hundred years Scotland was the richest country in Europe, and the home of thinkers who had spawned a revolution in America and were creating the industrial revolution in Britain. Could this great awakening work now in reverse as all books are contained in a single dispenser?
Never mind the impermanence of costly devices which will be outmoded within a few years, or the restrictions of software intended to meet restrictive purposes. I would have far more confidence in the future of the ebook if it were guaranteed the same freedom of the press as the printed book. Sadly, political forces are already active on the behalf of special interests. The new money is on the Kindle, and this too leaves me in doubt.