Birkerts, writing in 1994, was mainly talking about word processing and CDROM-based multimedia. Electronic books, however, were already on the horizon, and Birkerts was alarmed. Rejecting the argument that reading on screen is the same as reading on a page, he wrote: “The context cannot but condition the process. Screen and book may exhibit the same string of words, but the assumptions that underlie their significance are entirely different depending on whether we are staring at a book or a circuit-generated text.”
Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I have a hard time sympathizing with Birkerts’ concern that digitized, transistorized words don’t really exist.My entire PhD dissertation, completed the same year as Birkerts’ Elegies, sits on an old 40-megabyte external hard drive that I can’t access because I don’t currently own a Macintosh, but I know that it’s there and that it could be retrieved. I must report, moreover, that when I used the eBook to re-read the U.S. Constitution, “the assumptions that underlie [the] significance” of this timeless document didn’t seem to shift much.
On a related point, however, Birkerts hits closer to the mark.As I observed at the outset, some books have a dual nature as things to be read-vessels to be emptied of their symbols and meanings-and as physical artifacts to be admired or collected for their historical value. A traditional paper book can be both of these things.An electronic book, Birkerts points out, can only be the first. He writes:
In the contemplation of a single volume, or mass of volumes,we form a picture of time past as a growing deposit of sediment; we capture a sense of its depth and dimensionality. Moreover, we meet the past as much in the presentation of words of specific vintage as we do in any isolated fact or statistic. The [electronic] database, useful as it is, expunges this context, this sense of chronology, and admits us to a weightless order in which all information is equally accessible.
This is a valuable warning.With their increasing power and portability, appliances such as the electronic book are creating a global network of information. This information is so disembodied, however, that we frequently have few ways to judge its provenance or worth, and so we lose all sense of physical connection with the originator. As it turns out, you can judge a book by its cover.
As electronic books gain a following, especially in the world’s centers of writing and thought, points of tension with the world of traditional books will no doubt develop. Imagine, for example, that a Harvard student with a Rocket eBook visits Barnes & Noble’s Web site and purchases the RocketEditions of a hundred classic literary works. She puts just as much care into her selections as William Pannapacker, and then actually reads the books, resulting in a collection that genuinely reflects her intellectual passions. Would she have any chance of winning the Philip Hofer Prize? Should she? Is there something about the ink, the paper, the binding, the odor of a book that contributes to the ideas within? If not-if a book’s essence is retained when its words are reduced to electronic bits-does this mean that our attachment to the leatherbound, dusty-smelling volumes of old is simply a kind of sentimental materialism? Either way, it may be time for some serious book re-viewing.