On a single day, the December Touchstone appeared in my mailbox, and the 26 November issue of Newsweek fell in my shopping cart at Giant Eagle.
The cover story of the latter trumpets Jeff Bezos of Amazon, holding up and eclipsing half his face, his new Kindle gizmo ($399), which is set to replace the old fashioned sort of paper-and-leather book.
The article gushes about this new e-book and e-books in general. Here are the ecstatic text-boxes:
1. “’The vision is that you should be able to get any book – not just any book in print, but any book that’s ever been in print – on the Kindle, in less than a minute,’ says Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.”
2. “Errata can be corrected instantly. Updates, no problem – in fact, you could subscribe to a book with the expectation that an author will continually add to it. A novelist might rewrite an ending.”
3. “Devices like the Kindle, with its reader-friendly ink and type face, can subsume consciousness in the same way a physical book does. It can take you down the rabbit hole.”
[I bet your imagination is piqued by that phrase, "it can subsume consciousness." Do books "subsume" your consciousness? No. But do virtual/techno books? Hmmmmm ... ]
Not to be outdone by Amazon, Google is doing its own digitization thing. Adam Smith (what a name) of Google’s Book Search project line, says that digitizing the world’s libraries is all about “getting rid of the idea that a book is a [closed] container.
Honestly, despite my misgivings about the constant press of technology into daily life and my romantic luddite proclivities, I find much in this project attractive. I won’t pay $399 for a Kindle, but in a year, I’ll probably pay $50 for an even better e-book. I kind of like the conservationist appeal: “We chop down trees, transport them to plants, mash them into pulp, move the pulp to another factory to press into sheets, ship the sheets to a plant to put dirty marks on them, then cut the sheets and bind them and ship the thing around the world. ‘Do you really believe that we’ll be doing that in 50 years?’ asks Microsoft’s Bill Hill” (what a name).
No, we won’t be doing that for sure. I know that I will have to accustom myself to wincing at more screens.
But I am not so offended by clean white paper in codex, the feel and smell of leather, and the texture of imprint, and the beauty of typeface, the aroma of a newly-printed page in a book with wide margins, rich apparatus, and pages meant to be fanned and opened up into a play of apparent random and predestined, appointed revelation. I also like a sharp No. 2 Faber pencil for the scrawling of marginalia. I like the sound and feel of graphite scribing on paper.
And let us remember, fondly and morosely, that it took a book to call forth this rather cruel clue of Fermat's on a real live page: Cuius rei demonstrationem mirabilem sane detexi. Hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet. [Supposedly, Andrew Wiles back in 1993 fulfilled Fermat's challenge with a proof of Pythagoras' cultic riddle. Here I find myself very much like the atheists: I am not convinced by Wiles' proof because I will not understand him.]
Then there’s Touchstone. Fr. Michael Ward of Peterhouse in Cambridge reveals the secret unifying blueprint underlying the Narnian heptology. I will have to chew more on his idea that Lewis associated each of the seven books to a different planet in the Ptolemaic astrology.
But before this feature article, there’s this homily by that inestimable Dante (and Tasso) translator, Dr. Anthony Esolen. The penultimate section of his reflection on Josiah’s discovery of the Book of the Law in the shabby Temple is a threnody on the passing of books in this age.
Here it is, in Esolen’s very fine “Finders Weepers,” under the heading “A Land of Books”:
Books … Yes, I see books. I see a land littered with libraries. In them I see relics: wooden chairs and balustrades no one any longer has the skill to carve, and a few old books to go with them, dusty, forbidding, small-printed filled with observation, eloquence, and sometimes genius.
Nobody reads them. Few can. I can see those books packed in boxes to make room for the ephemeral. I see the boxes carted to the landfill.
I see crows pecking at the centuries …
I see Latin and Greek textbooks on the shelf behind me as I write. They are the works of years of devotion, by men who strove to understand the empires of our past, their glories and their fall. Their title pages take me aback. “Chairman of the Latin Department at Westfield High School,” reads one. “B.A., formerly fellow of King’s College,” reads another. Sometimes the editor boasts no title, because he is an amateur, a lover. I see these, I the holder of a doctorate, and am ashamed.