In a short piece at silicon.com “futurist” Peter Cochrane talks about a potential business idea that I’m surprised doesn’t already exist: digitizing personal book collections. As I’ve said in the past, I support the various book digitization efforts from Google and others for these projects’ potential to make the sharing of knowledge easier, not because I want to read all my books (for free or otherwise) from my computer. However, I am intrigued by the option of digitizing at least some of the books I own – perhaps books I’ve read and don’t intend to read in full again. It would be nice to have searchable, digital copies of these books to refer back to, but there are some books that I could never trade in for digital doppelgangers.
Lately, critics have been swift to announce the death of print culture, and thus pronounce the end of literacy. Even two technology critics whose opinions usually reside on opposite ends of the spectrum – Kevin Kelly of Wired and Christine Rosen of The New Atlantis – agree that culturally, we are now “people of the screen.” True to Kelly’s technocrat leanings, he embraces the screen’s omnipresence in his recent essay in the Screen Issue of The New York Times Magazine. In Kelly’s opinion, the hegemony of the screen will oust the word from its dominance and replace it with the visual image. He contends, “We are now in the middle of the second Gutenberg shift – from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality.” Rosen agrees with Kelly, though where he celebrates a new visual literacy, she laments. Rosen’s New Atlantis essay “People of the Screen” admonishes Kelly’s enthusiasm in a previous Times Magazine essay for the possibilities of mashing up and remixing texts (a glorified cut and paste), but she ends by echoing his recent sentiments and committing literacy to its deathbed, “Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen-savvy. The paper book, the tool that built modernity, is to be phased out in favor of fractured, unfixed information.”What’s most audacious about their prediction that a screen-based society will stifle literacy, is that they equate a redefinition of form with an end, and in doing so discount the ways that the screen could expand the possibilities of disseminating literature, providing greater access and a more portable form, as well as saving a few trees, to boot. If reading is in decline, then writing is experiencing a resurgence – emails, IMs, and text messages, however inglorious their usual state, show that people are writing prolifically. And the text message, whose condensation would seem a more apt medium for poetry, is now being used to write cell phone novels, which are wildly popular in Japan (an excerpt of one was translated here by Ben last year). There’s no dearth of writers and aspiring writers, either, proven by the increasing number of MFA applicants, who are often willing to pay high fees for instruction, and don’t even mention the millions of blogs, this one included. I have never heard a literary magazine wax nostalgic for the days when they were overwhelmed by submissions. The point is, even if reading long-form narratives or poetry is in decline, writing is robust and print will linger regardless.Will screen culture redefine literacy? Of course. But does this merit the doomsday proclamations issued by Rosen and Kelly? I think not. Rosen writes of her experience reading Dickens on a Kindle, and the inherent difficulties, including her “restless” eyes that “jumped around,” which is the way many people read on a screen, scanning for nuggets of information in an F-shaped pattern. But is this a reaction to the screen itself or to the material that we most frequently find online? If problems with focus and concentration are related to the characteristics of the screen, then perhaps there are ways to make future versions more reader friendly. Surely, the users of the first generation of personal computers could have made similar arguments about portability if arguing against word processing. But modifications and improvements have made the three-pound laptop a reality. And as for complaints about slower reading, you have to take into account habit and custom, and the ways we are educated. Perhaps it’s impossible for some thirty-five year olds to feel as comfortable with reading text on a screen as young children who are now growing up reading online. I, personally, despised attempting to comprehend and analyze the GRE’s reading comprehension passages online and I still prefer to print out long articles, and I find the heft of a book in my hand pleasurable, but children who grow up with e-books and online reading may think nothing of it. Which is much of Rosen’s issue – that screen fluency will end reading as we know it. Rosen seems more preoccupied with the changing conventions and how this will shape culture than technology hastening the true end of reading. The shift from the book to the digital file is more akin to the shift from the LP to the MP3, and although a shift may not be free of consequence, it’s not the great erosion that Rosen and Kelly presage. And such is the predicament for many types of long-form artistic work: the novel, the film, the album. Digital culture allows for greater plasticity and user interaction, while providing a platform for an unprecedented number of voices. The fear that the background noise will make it more difficult to pinpoint specific voices, and that we will become lost in information a la Oedipa Maas, may be more warranted. If we can agree that the future of reading is onscreen, instead of sullenly balking or calling this the end of literacy, we should consider and plan for the possibilities.
It was a battle between an evangelizing visionary and a sage defender of the past, perhaps the first big tussle in the great sorting out of publishing’s new look in the digital age.This was 2006, when Wired Magazine technology evangelist Kevin Kelly wrote about the helter skelter future of books in the digital age. In the New York Times Magazine, Kelly looked at then still nascent book scanning efforts, and extrapolated a future that sent a shiver through writers, editors, publishers, and many readers:Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.Later he added:[Authors] can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions – in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the “discovery tool” that markets these other intangible valuables.At the annual Book Expo, keynote speaker John Updike responded, heaping scorn: The economic repercussions of this paradise of freely flowing snippets are touched on with a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding.Everyone reveled in the literary throwdown at the time (Gawker called it a Crossover Nerdfight). There was no “winner,” however, and neither Kelly nor Updike was proven right, but there are some interesting new developments to contemplate.When Kelly wrote of “remixed” books, many were aghast, envisioning zombified, soulless collages, based on the desecrated works that had been co-opted for profit. They may have been right about the zombie part: At least one book remix has caused quite a stir this year. According to Publishers Weekly, there are “more than 600,000 copies in print of… Jane Austen mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” A graphic novel version is in the works, as is a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Even though this recent example looms large, when you start thinking about it there is a rich history of literary remixes. At the Vromans Bookstore Blog, Patrick Brown recently compiled a thorough exploration of the topic in response to J.D. Salinger’s lawsuit over an unauthorized sequel to his novel The Catcher in the Rye. Though that remix is not looking particularly auspicious, Patrick notes the many venerable and successful remixes that have come before it, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked to a pair of recent books by Maile Meloy. Brown doesn’t mention it, but you can even go all the way back to the “first” novel, and look at Don Quixote’s second part as an inspired calling out of unauthorized “copycat” versions of the book. It’s entirely plausible to make the case that literary history is in many ways a history of literary “remixes,” and, as Kelly has suggested, current, ever-stricter copyright regimes are an artificial impediment to this free flow of ideas.Returning to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, silly as it may be, one wonders if the book’s success doesn’t prove there is an appetite – in our heavily remixed, mashed up culture – for freer rein to be afforded writers who want to experiment in this vein. It’s also clear that the public domain offers an unending font of material for those inclined to use it (for a more highbrow example, think of the relationship between Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare). Meanwhile, the Salinger case would seem to indicate that when it comes to books under copyright and the cross-linking, clustering, and reassembling that Kelly prophesied, we are still very much at the whim of the copyright holder.Kelly’s other point – that of a new business model for writers that relies not on selling the book but on using the book to sell “access” to the writer, has been taken up enthusiastically by another Wired guy, Chris Anderson, who has written an entire book on this topic, Free. Anderson is “selling” (read: giving away) the book under this model and his ideas have caused media types quite a bit of heartburn.Interestingly, the backlash to Anderson’s book seems to be resonating (to me, anyway) much more than the book itself. The unfortunate revelation that Anderson had lifted substantial passages for the book from Wikipedia suggests that in a world where writers don’t get paid for writing and information wants to be free, the writing itself is almost beside the point as compared to the ancillary, profit-making schemes that can surround the “author as brand” idea. This criticism would only seem to be confirmed by Anderson’s explanation that there was an oversight in citing the copied passages properly.With a new novel coming soon from our greatest literary recluse, I wonder too whether a flourishing of the idea that authors make money from selling “access” and not books would mean that we could never have another Pynchon or McCarthy or DeLillo whose works alone tower above any notion that they might experiment with alternative revenue models.In the end, there are some elements out of the Kelly/Anderson view of the future of publishing that remain compelling. The remixed book is an important idea that need not be villainized or trivialized, particularly as digitization provides new opportunities for experimentation. The notion of “free,” meanwhile, seems far more potentially damaging in that whole swathes of literary culture are not particularly compatible with the “authors selling access” model. However, if you believe that good writing is always worth something to somebody, you don’t have much to worry about.
Ten years ago this month, the novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker published an oddball of a book: a non-fiction jeremiad about library policy in the United States called Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. One wonders how Baker sold his publishers on a book about libraries, but he had written a few essays for the New Yorker and other magazines on topics like card catalogs and “books as furniture” that no doubt found a following. Still, library policy? Preservation techniques? Bor-ing. Well, boring to most people; thrilling to me, a bespectacled grad student who had worked in both publishing and in a library and was still trying to figure out how to carve a career out of old books.
At the time, I was enrolled in a graduate course called The Social History of Collecting, and my professor, a curator of rare books at one of the most prestigious libraries in the country, assigned it as a class text. Glancing over my copy of the book now, my spare marginalia belies the power this book has had on me.
In it, Baker describes the widespread demolition of newspapers and books in America’s research libraries, particularly during the 1950s-1990s, when so-called preservation librarians convinced the government, granting agencies, and most importantly, each other that printed materials were disintegrating and the only way to save civilization was to microfilm everything, which often required disbinding and destroying the originals. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner wrote of the book, “It is a blistering, and thoroughly idiosyncratic, exposé of how libraries are destroying our historical records in order to ‘save’ them.” Baker also recounts his own improbable foray into librarianship, after he successfully purchased thousands of bound American newspapers that the British Library decided to sell to the highest bidder in 1999. In many cases, these sets are—amazingly—the only extant copies of the newspapers in actual paper. Joseph Pulitzer’s World, for example.
I don’t recall ruminating about Baker’s book after the semester ended, but when I dug deeper into my thesis research that summer, it became clear that I was a perfect example of those in the scholarly community who have lost much in the microfilm mania of the mid-twentieth century. I was researching the publishing history of classic reprints—reprint editions of so-called classic books, e.g. Penguin, Modern Library, Everyman’s Library, etc.—in the twentieth century. I became aware of a series of articles written by Johan J. Smertenko and published in the New York Herald-Tribune sometime during the 1920s. His column was titled “Twice-Told Tales,” and it focused on newly published editions of classic books, which seemed like something I ought to get my hands on. Without specific dates, though, it was going to require flipping through possibly a decade’s worth of the Herald-Trib. The problem: all the Herald-Tribunes have been discarded (that means thrown out in library parlance). Could the articles be found on microfilm? Theoretically they could, with another year and an extra set of eyes, if whoever had microfilmed it had done a decent job in the first place.
Then I remembered Baker and his list of rescued newspapers. Wouldn’t you know it, he did have the Herald-Trib, a run consisting of 1866-1966, and one, I might add, that is the longest paper run of that newspaper available anywhere. The Library of Congress, the New York Public Library – they only have it on film. So I emailed Baker, of Vox fame, and asked if I could visit. On July 27, 2001, I drove up to Rollinsford, New Hampshire, to an abandoned mill where Baker was storing thousands of bound volumes of antique newsprint. It took about an hour to find my first Smertenko article; in all, three of his articles were used directly in my thesis. All this and lunch with Baker added up to a perfect day for a bookish grad student.
Beyond that, Baker’s words, or maybe more precisely, his actions, stayed with me. Still trying to find my calling in the book world, I look a position in a university library’s preservation department. The only library experience I had before this was as a reference page at my hometown public library. The new job involved preparing books for circulation and assessing minor preservation needs, although it later morphed into a position that entailed assisting researchers with special collections and rare books, organizing archival collections, and writing finding aids. There was much I loved about this job, and one thing I didn’t: discards, a.k.a. deaccessioning.
I had seen discards at the public library, was even allowed to take one home, which still sits on my shelves today: an awful buckram-bound edition of Departmental Ditties and Ballads and Barrack-Room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling, with library stamping all over the place. What attracted me to it—it seems strange to admit—was a swastika. I thought it intensely interesting that Kipling had used this symbol before it had accrued so much evil meaning. So I understood the basics of library “weeding;” that brittle or under-used books are methodically divested, sometimes for cash, sometimes for shelf space. Baker discusses this to some extent, estimating that library administrators withdrew approximately 975,000 books from our national libraries, many tossed merely because they were now available on microfilm, and libraries needed the space.
Then I experienced first hand what some libraries are (still) scrapping: An association copy (inscribed by the author to a friend) of a Victorian-era history of New York; an imprint from Ithaca, New York, in its original binding, four decades before Cornell put it on the map; but it was the French-language editions of Oeuvres Completes De Voltaire (1785) that really shocked me. Here are volumes of Voltaire, printed only seven years after his death, four years before the Revolution that his words helped to spark. Yes, some had been rebound, and yes, we were missing a few in the set, but these books had scholarly value. I made inquiries and found that Princeton also had that set in its rare book library, also incomplete. Why would we pitch something that Princeton was keeping in a vault? I emailed Princeton, and the curator there was grateful to take a few of the volumes and complete their set. I took three volumes home myself—vols. 1 & 2 on Theatre and vol. 12 Poemes et Discours en Vers, for no other reason than I couldn’t bear to send them to the guillotine (or, in this case, the landfill). And even though I was low man on the library ladder, I complained to the director about the deaccessioning. A sympathetic book lover, he nevertheless explained that a professional had done the weeding, and that was that.
But each library’s deaccession policy is dependent on the proficiency of individual librarians. Larger institutions may have librarians with real subject expertise, others may not, and many are unaware or hostile to the value of the book as an artifact. So they rely on circulation rates—which seems to me always a bad idea, for tastes seem to skip generations—or tag older books with words like “crumbling” or “fragile” or “acidic paper” in order to hasten their demise, when a good archival folder or box would preserve it well enough. There is actually little on the art of deaccessioning in the professional literature. The title of one that a reference librarian recently sent to me intimates that discarding is something to be ashamed, or at least, wary of: “When Weeding Hits the Headlines: How to Stop Your Library from Making (That Kind of) News,” (2008). I found another, from 2006, published in Library Student Journal, titled “Selection, deaccessioning, and the public image of information professionals: Learning from the mistakes of the past.”
I acquired about twenty ex-lib books from that stage of my career, mostly in good or fair condition – the bindings are rubbed, having been on and off shelves for more than a hundred years in most cases. Nonetheless, they are amazing to consider closely, for example an 1852 pamphlet written by Daniel Webster, An Address Delivered Before the New York Historical Society, on the tattered cover of which James Duane Doty, territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs for Utah under Abraham Lincoln, had signed and dated, noting that Webster had sent it to him. Though it is available in both microfilm and as an e-book, according to WorldCat, only about seventy institutions still own the original. Does that make it rare? Maybe not, but perhaps “semi-rare” or “medium rare,” as some institutions now call books of artifactual value that are not quite white-glove worthy.
Others in my “collection” are just interesting pieces of print culture, such as annual registers from early nineteenth-century New York and a palm-sized New Testament belonging to one Drusilla Dashiell, who decorated the endpapers with her personal stamp. I didn’t set out to create a collection of discards, per se, but others have. Michael Zinman, a major book collector, has occasionally come across discarded material from the New York Public Library or the New Jersey Historical Society to add to his collection of early American imprints (now at the Library Company of Philadelphia). The lore surrounding the NYPL is particularly unflattering – its dumpsters were once considered a gold mine for book scouts. And, sadly, this continues in the nation’s libraries. In 2005, the Birmingham Public Library found itself in a public relations morass when one of its most devoted patrons blew the whistle after seeing historical pamphlets and books from the Tutwiler Collection of Southern History and Literature stacked up in the library’s garbage bins. The library stated that they were duplicates, and they may well have been, but why chuck them? I’ve witnessed the same scenario on another institution’s loading dock.
Of course, it’s not about a possible jackpot in the dumpster. It is—to get back to Baker—about preservation of originals, which should be the first goal of research libraries. An institution can’t provide access to something it no longer has, and let’s face it, providing access to grainy, distorted, cropped microfilm is no badge of honor. Providing access to a photocopy or an electronic version of the Oeuvres Completes De Voltaire is admirable, but not at the expense of the eighteenth-century volume. And if the library cannot perform its preservation duty, allow another institution or person the chance. Baker suggests this on the very last page of Double Fold, recommending that public institutions post a list of discards so that other institutions (or dealers or collectors for that matter) have the chance to save them. That was ten years ago. I know of no such resource today, even though listservs and web-based databases would make quick work of it. I have seen book carts with “Free to a good home” signs in some university libraries and attended once-a-year library book sales at others. Some years ago, my undergraduate alma mater, Syracuse University, actually held a book auction featuring discards and donations that they didn’t want. It was both a fundraising and public relations success. I happily over-paid for a two-volume set of Wraxall’s Historical Memoirs and Helen Campbell’s Darkness and Daylight; or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life (1897).
I take heart in the fact that Baker saved such an important trove of newspapers and that Duke University eventually took the collection to care for it “in perpetuity,” thanks due to David S. Ferriero, then university librarian at Duke, now the archivist of the United States. If he understands why a bulky collection like that is worth keeping, we’re in good hands. Because even though a small renaissance in book arts and book history has occurred in the past decade, as well as a small uptick in the number of library science degree programs that have rare books and archives specialties, one has to wonder where the discards are going, as electronic editions (i.e., Google Books) begin to dominate the academic library in a second wave of preservation re-formatting. I have the feeling that deaccessioned books are still shushed out the back door of American’s libraries, when collectors and readers are quite willing to treasure someone else’s trash.
You may have heard the news that Google is embarking on a new venture to digitize the collections of several university libraries. According to Google this venture “a part of our mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Though I have heard some naysayers discussing this on the radio today, I agree with the folks who are saying that this could represent a great leap forward for the written word. In the centuries before the internet, mankind generated millions and millions of words. So much knowledge is “locked up” on the pages of books. If Google succeeds in digitizing the world’s books, people will suddenly be able to manipulate all that “locked up” information, finding hidden patterns or bringing to light details that have been tucked away in the dusty stacks, all with a few keystrokes. This is all still a few years out as Google gets to work, but it might be time to start thinking about what you’ll do with all of this information once it’s at your fingertips.Related:Coverage at CS Monitor.PC Magazine puts this development in the context of Google’s recent unveilings of Google Print and Google Scholar.Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine asks: What’s next?
With each new holiday season the reach of ereaders expands, as a new crop of Kindles, Nooks and iPads are fired up. The first thing to do is download a few books.
Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, 45% of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. Last year it was 33% and the year before it was 25%, so the trend continues unabated.
So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going.
For starters, The Millions published a pair of very highly regarded and very affordable ebook originals in 2013. If you are new to the ereader game, we hope you’ll pick up these titles:
Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by Mark O’Connell ($1.99)
The Pioneer Detectives: Did a distant spacecraft prove Einstein and Newton wrong? by Konstantin Kakaes ($2.99)
Here are some of the most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2013 (which you’ll see are very similar to our Hall of Fame and most recent top-ten which take into account books in all formats). Publishers appear to still be having luck pricing ebooks pricing above the magic $9.99 number that has been a focus for many in the industry (all prices as of this writing).
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt ($7.50)
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner ($10.99)
Selected Stories by Alice Munro ($10.74)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton ($8.59)
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon ($10.99)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri ($9.99)
Tenth of December by George Saunders ($8.99)
Fox 8 by George Saunders ($0.99)
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer ($8.99)
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda ($11.04)
MaddAdam by Margaret Atwood ($1.99)
Other potentially useful ebook links:
And in this fractured ebook landscape, you’ve also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don’t forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years.