Remains of the Day

If you’ve read The Late Age of Print, then you’ll know that I’m not a technological reactionary.  In my arsenal of gadgets you’ll find a much-loved iPod Touch, a less-loved Kindle 1.0, a mobile phone that I regularly use, and more.  A friend of mine claims that I’m a gadget-head.  Usually I beg to differ, but having just inventoried my electronic wares, I’m beginning to think that he may be on to something.

Here’s the thing, though: I also love  books — and my that I mean, printed books.  While I’d hardly consider myself to be a book fetishist (i.e., I’m not a devotee of Nicholas A. Basbanes), I’m a bibliophile in about the same way that I’m a gadget-head, that is, by default.  Over the years I’ve accumulated a sizable library, mostly in my capacity as an academic; I love to read; and I annotate my books prodigiously, creating personalized indexes so that I can return easily to the passages I’ve underlined.  Maybe one day I’ll scan and post one of these indexes here, so that you can see just how intensely I read.

New Yorker June 8 & 15, 2009

Because I seem to be pulled in two different directions technologically speaking, I was immediately drawn to this week’s (June 8 & 15) cover of the New Yorker, pictured above.  Its setting is a post-apocalyptic New York City.  An alien has touched down and sits amid the ruins, surrounded by what appears to be e-waste.  Discarded CDs, mobile phones, and computer keyboards abound.  Also strewn amid the litter are devices that look suspiciously like Amazon Kindles.  Our genial-looking alien relaxes with a tattered but still mostly intact printed book.

The New Yorker cover is a brilliant commentary on the particular bibliographic moment in which we are currently living.  It seems as though electronic reading was the conversation at last week’s BookExpo America.  The prevalence of that conversation tells us just how short-sighted — and indeed profit-obsessed — the book industry is becoming.  The central problem with e-reading, beyond the temptation to overly-secure digital content, is that of endurance.  Too many e-reading devices and too many digital formats result in too much of one thing: technological obsolescence.

If you don’t believe me, check out Chapter 1 of The Late Age of Print, where I discuss an early e-book experiment called Agrippa (A Book of the Dead).  You can find the text of the Agrippa story online, but unless you’re a collector of legacy technologies you pretty much cannot read it in its original form.  It was encoded on a 3 1/2-inch floppy diskette (remember those?) that is incompatible with today’s hardware and operating systems.

The partisans of e-reading may well retort that printed books, like their electronic kin, also deteriorate.  Paper can become brittle and, well, there’s a reason why the word “bookworm” exists in the English language.  All true.  But here I’m persuaded both by my own experience and by Nicholson Baker’s wonderful book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random House, 2001).  Baker shows us how even just a modicum of care can help print-on-paper books to endure for centuries.  The “slow fires” that the proponents of micro-media first advanced and that the denizens of e-books now expound are pretty much smoke and mirrors.

For e-reading to succeed, there will need to be something even more fundamental than built-in dictionaries, wireless content delivery, and other such bells and whistles.  What will be needed above all — and what the printed book so well embodies — is a stable platform.  Indeed, when was the last time one of your printed books was “upgraded” out of existence?



  1. Very interesting, Ted.

    I came up with this obnoxious label for myself in grad school — Neo-Native American & technophylic luddite. Where books are concerned, even my ‘green’ side lusts for tree blood and their pulpy bodies. No kindlekind, ever, for me, thankyouverymuch. I will remain a lifetime member of the paper/bound book & handwritten letter club.

    I am very curious to see how you index. I underline for miles & make notes in the margins, but there’s no hope for me when I try to find a passage.

  2. Ted Striphas says:

    “Neo-Native American & technophylic luddite” — I love it. Plus, it sounds v. Stewart Brand to me. How apropos.

    As for your green impulses, I second them. And for whatever it’s worth, I don’t buy into the hype that silicone and plastic are somehow more “green” than renewable resources like trees.

    Wish I were more of a (paper) letter writer these days, as I used to be a pretty prolific one. Email is probably my main concession to the electronic life.

    I’ll post one of my auto-indexes to LAoP one of these days. I used to use tape-flags, but then my books began looking like the courtyard at the United Nations.

    One last, unrelated thing: loved the restaurant review you Twittered a few weeks ago. Very creative.

  3. PaleFire says:

    I really loved your discussion on Agrippa in your book and I agree with the point you are making in that e-books need a stable platform that can endure the challenges that future technological developments will offer (for example, I can’t read some of my hypertext books on Vista for example).

    But I’d like to comment on your opener here: I am also on a similar boat in that I love printed books and I love my gadgets and most that electronic technologies have to offer. And this tendency of ours is not all that unusual.

    However, we (not as in you and I, but people in general) often forget that the book is also a technology. But it is a technology that we have internalized… like writing (as claimed by Ong, Bolter and other media ecologists)… We don’t perceive them as technologies anymore.

    What I am trying to say is that my passion for technology doesn’t exclude either (as yours don’t seem to either). Instead, I tend to look at how these seemingly disparate technologies interact, define, and redefine each other’s roles and functionalites in society and culture in general. None of which contradicts your position here (or in your book)… but I thought this point should also be made here. So, the next time your friend calls you a gadget-head, you kindly remind him that so is he 😛

    BTW, I am working on a blog post on LAoP and the review I promised is coming, just that this week has been hard with the loss of a good friend…

  4. Ted Striphas says:

    @PF: Thanks for your comment, and agreed — one cannot insist enough on the fact that printed books are technologies through and through. Their everydayness militates against just such a recognition, I think. I suppose that’s why I insist on using present-day (and thus in a way, anachronistic) terminology such as “platform” to refer to what is essentially an artifact of late-medieval times, if not earlier.

    And yes, I will remind my friend that, as a printed book reader, he too is a gadget head. An excellent riposte!

    I look forward to your review, and condolences again for the loss of your friend, who was also a valued member of the Bloomington community.

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