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Whither the Book?


Anthony Daniels has an interesting piece at The New Criterion on the fate of the printed book in the digital age:

Finding myself for three or four months at a loose end on the island of Jersey, a tax haven in the English Channel, I decided to go into the archives and write a short book about three murders that took place there in as many months between December 1845 and February 1846, including that of the only policemen ever to have been done to death on the island, George Le Cronier. He was stabbed by the keeper of a brothel known as Mulberry Cottage, Madame Le Gendre, who, a true professional, struck upwards rather than downwards with her specially sharpened knife, exclaiming expressively as she did so, “Là!” Le Cronier staggered outside and said to his fellow policeman, Henri-Manuel Luce, “Oh mon garçon, je suis stabbé!” (the language of most people of the natives of the island at that time being a patois). He died a day later, and Madame Le Gendre was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for life, outraging the righteous residents of Jersey with the elegance of her dress as she left the island, never to return.

Among the books I consulted in my researches in the library of the Société jersiaise was La lyre exilée, a book of poems published in 1847 by a French exile to the island, L. D. Hurel. All that I was able to find out about him (Hurel was a pseudonym) was that he arrived several years before the most famous French exile to Jersey, Victor Hugo; the reasons for his exile are unknown.

La lyre exilée contained a funeral ode to Le Cronier, as well as an ode to the abolition of the death penalty. Hurel published the former ode separately just after the murder, when feelings ran high on the island; according to the author, it sold out in two editions of two thousand copies each, which means that one in twelve of the population bought it.

Having left the island, and now writing the book, I discovered that my notes from La lyre exilée were incomplete and I needed to consult it again. Where could I go to do so? Books don’t come much more obscure: there were only twelve copies known in the world. (It is what the sellers of antiquarian books call very scarce, without ever letting on that people who are interested in it are scarcer still.) To return to Jersey was out of the question; then I discovered to my surprise, and initial pleasure, that the book had been digitized. I could consult it without leaving my study, without even shifting in my chair. I was briefly reconciled with and to the modern world.

Soon, however, my pleasure gave way to a melancholy, an unease, and even a slight bitterness. If a book as obscure as La lyre exilée were available online, did it not herald the extinction of the book itself, an article rendered redundant like the goose quills of old or fine sand to dry ink on paper?

If so, why should such an eventuality cause me to grieve? After all, I had felt no particular sorrow at the disappearance of the typewriter. (A film with a scene in a typing pool now strikes us as irresistibly comic, as if all those typists were simpletons or country bumpkins.) Nevertheless, I grew uneasy, like a man who had spent all his life on arcane alchemical studies only to realize towards the end, when it is too late to take up anything else, that scientific chemistry had rendered all his endeavors nugatory: that he had, in fact, devoted his earthly existence to the search for a chimera and frittered his time away on a child’s illusion.

Go read the whole thing…

4 comments to Whither the Book?

  • Kit

    Nothing will quite replace holding a book in my hand.

    Besides, an accidental drop won’t wipe out your entire library. :)

  • Texacalirose

    I’m a hopeless booky. Boxes and boxes of them make for more work on moving day, but one wouldn’t leave one of his children behind to avoid having to rent a bigger truck, would he? (Tracy?).

    Last Christmas, I bought tablets for my daughter-in-law and myself. Today I sit tablet-less as I wait for its replacement to arrive. Two months ago the darn thing froze up on me, so I had to send it back. I’m lucky it’s still under warranty, I guess. But where would I be if I didn’t have a cloth book of hundred on my shelf? And where is the technology that would allow me to underline vocabulary words and favorite quotes and to write my thoughts in the margins? (I’m not saying that the technology isn’t here; I’m saying that if it is, I don’t know where to find it).

    I love those tangible, hard or soft bound tomes and tomettes. When the batteries die or the power goes out after a big storm that our-great-leader-has-shown-to-be-most-presidential-even-though-dead-bodies-are-still-floating-to-the-surface-and-hundreds-are-still-without-heat-light-fuel, I will still be able to light a single candle (after cursing the darkness) and read.

  • kbiel

    We need both for the sake of civilization. Digital books will last as long as humanity and are infinitely available as long as the binary factory keeps churning out new bits and pixels. On the other hand, should we enter a new dark age and are busted down to rediscovering fire, it would be nice to have something that future generations can unearth and interpret as we do today with ancient texts in Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew, etc.

  • The added beauty of finishing books these days? You can subsequently donate them to the troops overseas.

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