Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Bibliotheque Humaine

Books are dead! Long live books!

Though I am, as usual, late to the party, I have begun to explore the world of e-books. The definition of an 'e-book' is still a bit vague these days, but that's what makes the subject interesting to me.

That and the fact that there are gadgets in involved.

We live in what is arguably the most interesting time to be a writer since Gutenberg, and quite possibly since writing itself was invented. And it's not just because gadgets are involved.

Technology--specifically, the internet, or cloud--has fundamentally altered the way in which writing is being produced and consumed. In the same way that the printing press marked the change from a manuscript to a codex culture, the creation of the cloud marks the change from a codex to a digital culture.

And, thanks to my Ipad, I am right in the center of it.

Well ok, I don't actually have an Ipad. Furthermore, even though the intense gadget lust is hard to deny, I really don't want an Ipad. Really. I actually want a Google Tablet.

Of course, no such object exists, yet, but it will. Come fall there will be a proliferation of e-reader devices of many sizes, shapes, thicknesses and, of course, costs, but right now, there are blissfully few. In fact, there are just four so far: the Kindle, the Nook, the Sony Reader and the Ipad. Of these, the Ipad isn't really an 'e-reader' because it relies on transmitted rather than reflected light.

That is, three 'e-readers' listed above (there are more being introduced every day, it seems) are very much like a book in that you really can't use them without a light source. These readers use what is being called 'e-ink' to display the letters on a neutral white background. In many ways, e-ink is as close to ink on a paper page as you can get from an electric display. Although the 'page' is an electronic screen, the surface is non-glare, so the problem of reflection is greatly reduced and thus e-readers are considered to be easier and less fatiguing to use for long periods of time.

Obviously, electronic screens, whether using e-ink or non-glare glass will never have the same reflective qualities as paper, but it's far easier to read when you are not dealing with the polished glass and bright light that characterizes all the Istuff...Iphones, Ipods, the Ipad.

Now, before you think that having to have a light source to use an e-reader is an inconvenience, consider for a moment if that's ever occurred to you before with an actual book. Did you ever say to yourself, 'Gee, this book is useless because I can't read it in the dark?'

Eventually however, the difference between reflected versus transmitted light will prove to be a trivial difference. It's a preference really, as the new age of digital publishing emerges from the cloud.

Light is the common denominator. If you really think about it, this will be the first time in human history that so much light has been used to transmit so many words from eye to eye, and thence from mind to mind. Great though they have been--and will continue to be, for this essay is no book obituary--books have ever been prisoners of their own covers, bindings and the shelves upon which they sit.

I can't help but recall how books have changed, even in my lifetime.

Both Readers of this journal know that I was raised in a bookstore, the child of serious book people. But few will know that while studying at the American College in Paris in the mid 1970's, I was once permitted what my parents would have considered to be the 'ultimate' library experience: the Bibliotheque Nationale (BN). As a naive youth, I failed to understand the luxury I was afforded at the time, going to the BN armed with letters from my Professor and a Dean of the College to do some research for a paper.

Accustomed as I was to the American library system, nothing could have seemed more stringent and less conducive to doing research than trying to get a book from the BN. In fact, I couldn't really 'get' a book from the BN back then, and I'm sure it's no different today.

I came to the Library at my appointed time, with a list of the three books that I hoped to look at. I could pick just three books, and they had to be chosen in advance. There was no going through the card catalog--that simply wasn't open to the 'public'. Yes indeed, even though I had a legitimate pass to get my books, I was still considered to be a member of the 'public' and was therefore not entitled to do more than examine three books of my choice.

I entered the building with considerable anxiety, not the least of which was due to my still-poor French. I overcame this fright and made my way to the imposingly high counter at the back of a great hall. After waiting my turn (always, in France, there is a wait), I presented my hand-written list to the clerk.

He looked over my letter and me with some amusement and no small disdain, it seemed to me. I was anything but a legitimate scholar, but my papers seemed to be in order. My list was taken and I was instructed to sit on a bench nearby and wait. After a half hour or so, the clerk returned with two of my three choices. The third was simply not available, and no explanation was due me in any case. I took my two volumes to a carrel in the great hall and pretended to read them.

Now, today, I have no memory of what the books were, though I do know I was writing a paper on Romanesque sculpture in southern France. What I recall most was the marked difference between my experience at the old BN, and going to the newly opened public library in the Centre George Pompidou. Many Parisians openly hated the 'Beaubourg' (as it came to be called derisively) because it looks like an industrial plant rather than a cultural center, but many more secretly hated it for the change in culture that it represented.

Public libraries, as we know them in America, at least, do exist in France, but were most uncommon when I was there. A public library such as that which opened in the Beaubourg in 1976 was a relatively new and even 'radical' concept for the French at the time.

And, although there was some real fear among the aging intellectual elite of 'La France' that homeless bums would take up residence in the library or worse, that the 'unwashed' public simply couldn't be trusted not to carve up and mutilate the books once permitted to handle them freely, in fact neither of these--nor any of the other--dire consequences resulted from this uncharacteristic French loosening of control.

As an American college student, used to 'free' and 'public' libraries, I was amused at what seemed to be a non-event. After all, I reasoned, we've had them for years, thanks to Dale Carenegie, right?

Perhaps, but now, years later, I see that, although our libraries are indeed public, even with all their open and free catalogs, most of the knowledge, most of the information, most of the power in those books is still locked up almost as securely as the dusty tomes in the back rooms of the Bibliotheque Nationale.

By creating the cloud and populating it with words, we will have finally wedged open the great door to La Bibliotheque Humaine. We are at last allowing light-- reflected or transmitted--to fall upon the words we all own. Questions of commerce and copyright will be forever changed of course. But, whether we know it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, these words, all of them, are our human legacy and after many centuries they are inexorably emerging into the light.

The power of words is not and shall not henceforth be restrained by mere ink and paper.


d2 said...

I think there was something of the French in our parents and what they instilled in us - even today, I still cannot dog-ear a book, no matter how hard I try to justify it. Even marking a page with a Post-It gives me pause. And forget about writing on a page...

bc said...

This one must go to the New Yorker...