These thoughts are in response to emails from old friends from Yale. Both value printed books and are reluctant to use ebooks.
I’ve been working with ebooks for 21 years.
And I’ve been obsessed with books for as long as I can remember.
When I was in the seventh grade, I catalogued all my books like a library.
As you know, I’ve maintained a list of every book I’ve read since that time (nearly 3000).
My house is full of printed books — probably 4000-5000.
Keep in mind that there are books as artifacts and books as content.
A book as artifact has value, like an antique has value, based on its rarity.
A book as content has value for the words and what they mean.
Think of Fahrenheit 451, a fictional world where all the books had been burnt and a rebel would devote his entire life to memorizing an entire book. You have just been assigned Paradise Lost. You are Paradise Lost. If you are killed, if you die without teaching a successor, that book will totally cease to exist.
Think of a beautifully illustrated book published in 1880. Only 100 copies were printed. They were individually numbered to enhance the notion that they are very rare. (Like making a statue an destroying the mold after a very limited number of copies have been made.
Think of the movie “Certified Copy” with Juliette Binoche.
Thanks to ebooks, book as artifact has been severed from book as content. Books as artifacts will continue to be read and valued forever. There value is likely to increase astronomically, because they will become ever more rare.
Ebooks have no “rarity”. If one copy exists, millions of copies can be created instantaneously and distributed around the globe instantaneously, at little or no cost.
Many of the books I now publish and republish first existed as “rare” books. Some were on the brink of disappearing entirely, like Homer’s Margites. Now they will exist forever (barring the possibility of another Dark Ages, eliminating the technology that we now take for granted which ebooks depend on for survival).
That means the bad as well as the good will be preserved. But, with shifting social tastes, and individual idiosyncratic tastes, who has the right to serve are arbiter and executioner? And I would contend that much can be learned from bad literature — what makes it “bad”? what does it have in common with other “bad” literature? What does it say about contemporary tastes and mores and values?
Of course, there is a sensual pleasure in holding a finely made book of great poetry. Enjoy it. But enjoy the electronic version as well, for the content.
There’s an ironic twist here.
When The Iliad and the Odyssey were first written, works that had once existed only in mind and memory, and that few knew in their entirety and could only share by face-to-face recitation became generally available. It was tedious and expensive to make copies, but it could be done.
The artifact nature of written books made it possible for books to be passed on from generation to generation, independent of faulty mortal human memory. Of course, those artifact books were subject to wear and destruction. But there were always people interested enough in, placing high enough value on the best of the best to make fresh copies themselves or to have their slaves do it or to pay to have it done. Yes, there were mistakes in judgment and there were natural disasters and human disasters (the burning of the Library of Alexandria), but much still survived, for thousands of years.
The twist is that electronic books (audio as well as text) free the content from the artifact — like it was before books were written down. The book resides in memory once again, as originally, only the memory is electronic instead of human and mortal — available to all. The memory of all of literature, of the entire human race can fit on a PC on my desk and eventually could be embedded in the tiniest gadget, even in the clothes I wear, and could be owned and taken for granted by everyone, or be so readily accessible by anyone from anywhere that “ownership” will no longer be associated with content (except by artificial legal constraints on recent content, by copyright).
Michael Hart, when he founded the Gutenberg Project, compared the advent of Ebooks to the invention of the printing press — leading to books becoming inexpensive and readily available. But the change is even more profound than that.
This is a moment in human history comparable to the invention of writing, and with immediate impact on the entire human race.