BY NICO VREELAND
In The Daily Beast Tuesday, Yale professor Stephen L. Carter cries out for a bailout for publishing, claiming that paper books as objects are essential to no less than democracy itself.
I could not disagree more.
Look, fearing the future is natural; it is by definition the unknown, and it’s scary. There are two ways to deal with this fear: we can describe it, define it, and use it to better the future that arrives; or we can prematurely assume that our fear is founded, cling to the past, and attempt to resist the future’s inexorable pull. Carter takes the latter route, the unhealthy route, the useless route.
I could spend all day picking apart this article. In fact, I’m going to. Brace yourself.
Paper books are more permanent than digital books: WRONG
Books are essential to democracy. … books themselves, the actual physical volumes on the shelves of libraries and stores and homes, send a message through their very existence. In a world in which most things seem ephemeral, books imply permanence
Books are not permanent. Every year, thousands of great books go out of print, not to mention the effects of fires, natural disasters, or simply getting lost. The force that makes permanent literature (and all written works) is interest. This is the same interest that drives downloading, the same interest that DRM opposes, the same interest that copyright opposes.
Ultimately, the people, the democracy of voices, judges the degree to which any book remains available to future masses. The difference between the preservation of a digital copy and that of a paper copy? Money. With print books, many people must buy a book for it to remain widely available and in print. With digital books, just a few need only love a book, and it will easily be preserved, and in a more reliable, more decentralized (if, as yet, unorganized) way.
Also, the cost for publishers to make digital books available ad infinitum approaches zero. If we want widely available books, digital is the way to go.
Carter also says:
As the literary critic J. Hillis Miller has noted, an online text has a “fragile, fleeing, and insubstantial existence” compared to a book. A book is forever. A screen of text is not.
a book, once out there, cannot be recalled. The author who changes his mind cannot just take down the page.
This is the fleeing existence of the latest in Luddite philosophy. Paper authors can change their minds. They do all the time, in new editions.
Although, I agree that we need to develop better ways to record editions of online documents; however, what’s standing in the way of that is not the technology, but in fact the attitudes of people like Carter, who assume that the Internet is incapable of permanence. When we figure that out, digital preservation will provide a wider, deeper, less fungible, less destructible database of information.
Expense correlates to worth: WRONG
To continue the first quote from above:
books imply permanence: that there exist ideas and thoughts of sufficient weight that they are worth preserving in a physical form that is expensive to produce and takes up space.
The idea that spending money to publish a book in paper somehow bestows upon it the mantle of greatness is entirely ludicrous, and in fact insulting to any reader of literature. Every one of us has read bad books, and with the publishing world somehow printing more titles each year, even as publishing slowly dies, I cannot believe that they’re simply finding more great books (or that a bailout would do them any good whatsoever).
The language that publishing speaks is that of money. The Nora Robertses of the world are not better than the Joyces simply because somebody’s willing to spend money to print their books. Money correlates to money, not to value.
The word “library” is more important than the information inside it: WRONG
When we eliminate the name “library,” as some universities and communities have done, creating such vulgarities as “information resource centers,” we are, implicitly, denigrating the very object that the library is intended to preserve. The book, we are saying, is not important; only its information content matters. … This is an error.
Of course the information is more important. Physicality impedes access, and the idea that the way we access information is more important than that information is maddeningly archaic.
Now, look, I love libraries. We pay a lot of attention to libraries here on Chamber Four. Libraries provide what I believe is an invaluable role to civilization, that of democratizing knowledge. Libraries remove financial hurdles for education and allow any citizen with the will to learn anything he or she wishes. However, without the information inside libraries, they are no more than pretty buildings.
I can understand a certain indulgence in the nostalgia of books, but to say that books as physical objects are more important than the words they contain is to advocate for a beautiful, comfortable, empty world.
Difficulty correlates to worth: WRONG
The tougher the text, the more reflective we must be in absorbing it. This suggests the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing—and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share.
Of course there’s worth in tough books. But here Carter implies that hard-to-read books are necessarily better and more important than easier books. That’s what’s known as inductive reasoning. You can look that up, Mr. Carter, on the Internet.
I agree that we should retain our willingness as readers to struggle with difficult ideas, and our capacity for hard work. But I vehemently disagree with Carter’s corollary, that difficulty necessitates value. Value defines value, case by case, and no other definition holds water.
Ideas should never be changed: WRONG
The online text … proposes to the reader that ideas are little more than the stuff that dreams are made on. As Miller notes, if you dislike any aspect of the text—the font style or size, say, or the columnar arrangement—you are free to alter it to your liking. The text loses its fixed-ness. It ceases to represent anything permanent or unchanging.
This argument (besides being ridiculous) devalues the additive, transformative process of history. The original quote about “the stuff of dreams,” which Carter does not cite, is from The Tempest. It reads:
…We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
In The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart’s character, Sam Spade, corrupts it into “the stuff that dreams are made of.”
Carter not only passive-aggressively derides those that only know the Bogart quote, he misquotes Shakespeare himself (it’s “SUCH stuff AS,” not “THE stuff THAT”), undercutting his own point. To insist, as Carter implicitly does, that only the original phrasing has validity is to miss out on the full history of such a phrase, and by proxy to discount everything in our culture which has an antecedent. That’s everything.
I agree that there’s a need in a digital age to insist on perfect copies of works so as to prevent corruption of media (different from revision of media, which is intentional and discrete). The perfect copy, however, is perfect in the sense that the same letters are in the same sequence, not that the font stays in comic bold aqua at 14 point.
By omitting the effects of our living culture on the themes and words of important works, we effectively ignore our own cultural existence in the intervening (in this case) 400 years. This is intentional stupidity.
We can’t read well on “screens”: WRONG
we can be certain of one thing: a screen is not the same as a page, and, as the migration continues, the experience of reading will itself be altered. We can anticipate a decline in reflection, in the willingness to work hard to understand a point of view, and, perhaps, the loss of the ability to appreciate the value of ideas.
I agree that ereaders are not yet ready for interacting with books (I don’t believe that he’s ever seen a dedicated ereader, let alone used it). But Carter takes a big leap here, and asserts that high thought dwells in paper pages; I find that idea insulting as a human being. We haven’t been tricked into thinking hard for the past 4000 years by some pulped wood chips dried on a screen. We are the engines of thought, not the ink and paper we read off of. No medium is incapable of high thought by virtue of its makeup. Not even Twitter.
Publishing deserves a bailout: WRONG
Carter’s title, and presumably his reason for writing, is that publishing deserves a government bailout (he never returns to support this claim). In fact, it’s publishing’s unwillingness to adapt itself to the changing reality of its own industry that is currently crippling it. More money will not help; in fact, it will exacerbate the problem.
The fact is that there are many avenues of information open to us: Twitter and Facebook, for example, alongside Random House and other major publishers. The efficacy of those various avenues, and the filters we develop to help us sift through the masses of information, will ultimately determine how we educate ourselves. Things will drastically change.
As I said before, the future is a scary place; it will take a lot of hard work to figure it out. Carter seems content to sit back and decry that hard work. Perhaps he should leave it to the people who aren’t quite as scared.
I can only hope that his writing is as impermanent as he fears it will be.