The Book of Clouds

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  November 17, 2010

An old story, a new technology
So far, books have been spared — not because they are hard to share (a digital book file of War and Peace is smaller than an mp3 of a three-minute pop song) but because until recently they have been difficult to digitize. Amazon has changed that: the bestseller list now arrives in digital form, ripe for piracy. Motivated people can build their own digital book scanners for less than $200. And Google is shouldering the massive expense of digitizing the world's books at an astonishing rate.

More recent developments — Google Books' class-action settlement and the production of cheaper, less ugly e-readers — have made the book the subject of international debate for the first time since perhaps the 1930s, when Penguin launched the first line of paperbacks.

While those who study books have yet to reach the alarmism of Jack Valenti, Harvard professors Ann Blair and Leah Price were excited enough to start planning Why Books? three years ago. And their prognosis — gleaned from a perspective that sweeps centuries and continents — isn't entirely dire.

"Different technologies come together," said Peter Stallybrass, a University of Pennsylvania humanities professor whose talk closed the conference.

"In one sense," he said, "of course you could say that printed books displaced an earlier technology, manuscripts . . . but very few people in 1800 were writing Bibles [by hand]. Although there were people writing Bibles, although they were a very small group." This got a laugh from the librarians.

"Another example of a bad opposition is the notion of orality versus literacy and written script cultures," he said. "As if what we're doing today isn't lectures, and 'lecture' is such a bizarre word because it means 'reading.'" Bigger laugh. "A lecturer speaks, but the actual word from the French means reading."

Eugenia Williamson can be reached at ewilliamson@phx.com.

Note: Because of an editing oversight, a previous version of this story contained some errors. Tao Lin’s novel Richard Yates was reviewed in the London Review of Books by David Haglund, not Peter Haglund. In addition, Lin’s essay in The Stranger was titled “Great American Novelist,” not “Greatest American Novelist.”

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