March 29, 2009
Voting With Your Eyes
Josh Marshall on the paradox of electronic reading — even people who complain about the available technologies (like Josh Marshall) find themselves unconsciously drawn to them.
I’ve always been an inveterate collector of books. Not in the sense of collectibles, but in the sense that once I buy a book, I never let it go. As I made my way through adulthood it was while dragging a tail of several hundred books along with me.
Finally, only a few months ago, I purged a decent chunk of my collection. And most are now in storage. But in our living room we have two big inset shelves where I keep all the books I feel like I need or want ready at hand. And last night, sitting in front of them, I had this dark epiphany. How much longer are these things going to be around? Not my books, though maybe them too. But just books. Physical, paper books. The few hundred or so I was looking at suddenly seemed like they were taking up an awful lot of space, like the whole business could dealt with a lot more cleanly and efficiently, if at some moral loss.
Don’t get me wrong. Book books still have some clear advantages. Kindle is a disaster with pictures and maps. But I didn’t realize the book might move so rapidly into the realm of endangered modes of distributing the written word. I was thinking maybe decades more. The book is so tactile and personal and much less ephemeral than the sort of stuff we read online.
I hope it’s clear that I’m not of the attitude that this is a good thing or something I welcome. When I had the realization I described above it felt like a sock in the gut, if perhaps a fillip on the interior decorating front. All the business model and joblessnes stuff aside, that’s how I feel about physical newspapers too. There’s a lot I miss about print newspapers, particularly the serendipitous magic of finding stories adjacent to the one you’re reading, articles you’re deeply interested in but never would have known you were if it weren’t plopped down in front of you to pull you in through your peripheral vision. Yet at this point I probably read a print newspaper only a handful of times a year.
When I think about it I kind of miss it. In a way I regret not reading them. But I just don’t. I vote with my eyes. And I wonder whether I’ll soon say something similar about books.
It’s been a long, long time since a really OLD information technology went away. We’re used to a continual junkheap of stuff that used to be new. CDs and cassettes had about twenty years each, gramophone records and celluloid film about a century. Newspapers, at least as we’d recognize them now, aren’t too much older than that.
The book hasn’t stood apart from technological change; an industrially-produced paperback book has about the same relation to a Gutenberg Bible as a new SLR camera has to a daguerrotype. But books, even printed books, are still OLD; phenomenally old compared to most dead technologies.
It’s an epochal change. The only thing I can think to compare it to is what Nietzsche’s madman said about the death of God:
“But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning?…
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling - it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves.”
It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered divers churches and there sang a requiem. Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time: “what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”