Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Digital Destruction of Values

Alan Kaufman wrote an essay in Evergreen comparing the decimation of book culture by digitization to the holocaust:

the awful scene is reoccuring everywhere: venerable, much beloved bookstores closing and that portion of the populace who cherish books—an ever-shrinking minority—left baffled and bereft; a silent corporate Krystallnacht decimating the world of literacy.

The comparison prompted ridicule from Newsweek (note Kaufman's response at the bottom). But though overstated, I think Kaufman's piece is important for emphasizing the sense of sacrality that many people attach to books. He also points out the dualism inherant in the electronic separation of text from physical artifact:

[Mass media] in subtle ways positions the destruction of book culture like so: “books” in and of themselves are nothing, only another technology, like the Walkman or the laptop. What is sacred are the texts and those are being transferred to the Internet where they will attain a new kind of high-tech-assured immortality. Like dead souls leaving their earthly bodies the books are, in effect, going to a better place: the Kindle, the e-book, the web; hi-tech's version of Paradise.

... The book is fast becoming the despised Jew of our culture. Der Jude is now Der Book. Hi-tech propogandists tell us that the book is a tree-murdering, space-devouring, inferior form of technology; that society would simply be better-off altogether if we euthanized it even as we begin to carry around, like good little Aryans, whole libraries in our pockets, downloaded on the Uber-Kindle.

Further, we are told that to assign to books a particular value above and beyond their clearly inferior utility as a medium for language is to mark oneself as an irrelevant social throwback. ... As to the bookstore, it is like the synagogue under Hitler: the house of a doomed religion. And the paper book is its Torah and gravestone: a thing to burn, or use to pave the road to internet heaven.

... To me, the book is one of life's most sacred objects, a torah, a testament, something not only worth living for but as shown in Ray Bradbury's ‘Fahrenheit 451’, something that is even worth dying for.

... Not since the advent of Christianity has the world witnessed so sweeping a change in the very fabric of human existence. Behind the hi-tech revolution is an idea of Progress that in many regards resembles the premises of Christianity itself. The superseding of the new way over the old, of the New Testament over the Old Testament, the discrediting of the traditional as inferior or even evil, a sense of powerful excitement about the revolutionary, and of course, most importantly, the promise of heavenly immortality over the temporal limitations of the wasting physical body—the accursed haptic book versus the blessed Holy Ghostly Internet—all these earmark the hi-tech pogrom against the book.

Heinrich Heine, the early 19th century German Jewish poet, wrote: “"Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people." The advent of electronic media to first position in the modern chain of Being—a place once occupied by God—and later, after the Enlightenment, by humans—is no mere 9/11 upon our cultural assumptions. It is a catastrophe of holocaustal proportions. And its endgame is the disappearance of not just books but of all things human

The benefit of Kaufman's over-heated rhetoric is that it make very clear that books are about values. We pursue the study of iconic books in order to explain why books carry such values. Commenting on Kaufman's article on the SHARP list, Bill Bell notes that "it has for generations been conventional to invest books with human characteristics." He provides three examples:

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. - Charles W. Eliot

The scholar only knows how dear these silent, yet eloquent, companions of pure thoughts and innocent hours become in the season of adversity. When all that is worldly turns to dross around us, these only retain their steady value. - Washington Irving

For friends... do but look upon good Books: they are true friends, that will neither flatter nor dissemble. - Francis Bacon

I think Kaufman is right that e-texts do not carry values the same way. Why that is the case must have to do with our own embodied natures. The realms of values--religion, ethics, literature, aesthetics--require physical artifacts with which our bodies can interact. The ephemeral texts cascading down my computer screen do not fill that bill very well.

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