Inflammatory Books on Kindle? Reigniting the Written Word

David Clemens

Kicking off a “Read Out” during the ALA’s Banned Books Week, I dipped into my copy of The Satanic Verses, saved from Cody’s Books in Berkeley shortly after it was firebombed in 1989. Other attendees read from Brave New World and Huckleberry Finn, Lolita and Fahrenheit 451, books that, as Kafka said, “wound and stab us...,” books that have frightened, infuriated, and enraged, taboo books and blasphemous books. Yet it all seemed strangely tame; with a growing uneasiness, I suddenly sensed that the days of defending provocative literature may be numbered. The notion of books as dangerous suddenly seemed quaint, as the Internet absorbs and neutralizes the Word.  It occurred to me that I will probably never again drive four hours to defiantly buy a novel.

I have written before about the evocative nature of old books, but this inchoate, powerful feeling portends something quite different. What if Marshall McLuhan was right and the medium really is the message?  What if the shift in medium from the physical object book to the digitalized e-book with text beamed down from “the cloud” neuters content, and renders a book weightless, ephemeral, and impalpable?

The Chronicle Review of October 1 contains essays on “The Fate of the Book.” Jeffrey Di Leo wonders, “When we lose the weight of the bound book, will our words lose weight as well?”  Since he argues that the cult of the book must end, I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic or not.

But on reflection, I believe that the answer to his question is yes, our words will lose weight when we lose the weight of the bound book. The Satanic Verses I held in my hands was my copy.  People over the centuries had been beaten for holding their copies, which then fed the censors’ bonfires. When Gutenberg made it possible for each person to have his own copy of the Bible, the world changed.  But once digitized and insubstantial, located on a remote server, is a “book” still transformational or subversive or corrupting? Or does it instead become mild, passive, and harmless?  No Guy Montag is going to break into our homes and torch our Kindles.

And what of ourselves? When the book becomes disembodied, so does the reader. Jaron Lanier suggests that when we are multitasking in cyberspace, in some ways, we cease to exist. He writes:

Decay in the belief in the unique self is driven not by technology, but by the culture of technologists, especially the recent designs of antihuman software like Facebook, which almost everyone is suddenly living their lives through. Such designs suggest that information is a free-standing substance, independent of human experience or perspective.  As a result, the role of each human shifts from being a ‘special’ entity to being a component of an emerging global computer.

Elsewhere, he refers to this antihuman experience as “the hive mind.”  While the book as object reinforces our individuality, a text on a screen reinforces our sense of being a component or node (on a screen there is nothing before the text and nothing behind it).  For a sense of electronica’s “window into cyberspace” effect (one that Sven Birkerts describes as “laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative") watch this brief ATT/Blackberry ad about Moby Dick, a cascade of  cartoons, directions to Nantucket, maps, Flickr images of whales and whaling ships, tweets, animations, Moby’s music...  It is hyperlinks or a Google search made visible with neurological interrupts and restarts.  In the end you wind up with plenty of tangential data points and eye candy, but nary a particle about Moby Dick.  Really, the flipping and scrolling is so discursive that it numbs the focused self that could know anything.  Not only has Moby Dick been deconstructed; so has the reader.

An old comrade-in-arms sends along this poem by William Stafford:

The Trouble With Reading

When a goat likes a book, the whole book is gone,
and the meaning has to go find an author again.
But when we read, it's just print-deciphering,
like frost on a window: we learn the meaning
but lose what the frost is, and all that world
pressed so desperately behind.

So some time let's discover how the ink
feels, to be clutching all that eternity onto
page after page. But maybe it is better not
to know; ignorance, that wide country,
rewards you just to accept it. You plunge;
it holds you. And you have become a rich darkness.

In the same vein, Stafford once observed that:

in everyone’s life there is always a torrent of things happening, and a someone who pays attention, and close attention, at least at intervals, to that torrent. ... Or a writer isn’t someone who has to dream of things to write, but someone who has to figure out what to pick up out of the current as it goes by.  The current happens to everybody; the selection happens to some; the crystallizing of the selection is what happens to a writer.

E-books reverse this process, and submerge a writer’s crucial selection/crystallization extractions back in the torrent.  There, of course, his book is powerless to inflame.

Editor's note: NAS published an article by Jason Fertig, "A Kindled Spirit," that presents a counter argument to the one presented here.

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