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.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Arguing over digital texts

In July, James Glieck writing in the New York Times Sunday Review, meditated on the digitization and web publication of rare manuscripts and books by libraries around the world. He celebrated the advantages of open access for historical research and derides critics of digitization such as Tristam Handy, who wrote in the Guardian that "it is only with MS in hand that the real meaning of the text becomes apparent: its rhythms and cadences, the relationship of image to word, the passion of the argument or cold logic of the case." Glieck responded:

I think it’s sentimentalism, and even fetishization. It’s related to the fancy that what one loves about books is the grain of paper and the scent of glue. ... We’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. ... Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.
Glieck did notice that desire for the material book, at least rare books and texts, continues unabated which he finds "odd":
Oddly, for collectors of antiquities, the pricing of informational relics seems undiminished by cheap reproduction — maybe just the opposite. ... Why is this tattered parchment valuable? Magical thinking. It is a talisman. The precious item is a trick of the eye. The real Magna Carta, the great charter of human rights and liberty, is available free online, where it is safely preserved. It cannot be lost or destroyed. An object like this — a talisman — is like the coffin at a funeral. It deserves to be honored, but the soul has moved on.
The label "magic" is the oldest (really: thousands of years old) put-down of scribal culture. This blog concurs with recent scholarship on magic that such polemics obscure transactions of real social power, whether in the form of magical objects or material (or, for that matter, digital) texts. We should therefore remember that a digital text, after all, is composed of matter too. It can certainly be destroyed (rather easily, in fact), and even all the copies of a text can disappear (less easily, but very likely as years turn into decades and centuries). When that happens, I doubt its soul will be any easier to find that those in human bodies.

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