Sep 172007

A couple of years ago, the philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt made publishing history of a sort by allowing his 7,000-word paper “On Bullshit” — which lives up pretty well to the second word in its title — to be published as a book. Bind some printed pieces of paper together, preferably in hard covers, distribute them via bookstores, at a cost of around $20, and voila, you have a book. If you choose not buy that one, however, you can read the paper free online. A book is thus a cultural artifact ,the form and meaning of which has changed throughout history. Books today tend to be printed words on paper, bound together, and thick enough that they can be located on the shelf by reading their spines.  They are sturdily enough held together so that you can carry them around, and today they are, especially when paperback, cheap enough that price is not the main preventative of reading them. Also today, books tend to have one author, and at least some pretense at coherence (though the occasional volume of selected or collected shorter works can be quite incoherent, and a number of books are edited collections, justified as not be a single author but as the selection of one or two editors). Books are of course only one way that printed works are presented; other common modes are newspapers, where articles, editorials, letters to the editor and columns can all be quite short, and magazines or scholarly journals. Pamphlets exist too. But books stand a better chance of being read form cover to cover, and of making a deep impact on the reader — at times.

Andrew Keen’s the cult of the amateur: how today’s internet is killing our culture  is somewhat longer than  On Bullshit — some 40,000 words, but it is still closer to a pamphlet than a book. However, the future of the book is one of Keen’s deep concerns. Here’s a key quote:

“Silicon Valley utopian Kevin Kelly wants to kill off the book entirely — as well as the intellectual property rights of writers and publishers. In fact, he wants to rewrite the definition of the book, digitalizing all books into a single universal and open-source free hypertext — like a huge literary Wikipedia. In a May 2006 New York Times Magazine ‘manifesto,’ Kelly describes this as the ‘Liquid Version’ of the book, a universal library in which ‘each is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled, and woven deeper into the culture than ever before.’ And Kelly couldn’t care less whether the contributor to this hyper-utopia is Dostoyevsky or one of the seven dwarfs.

“’Once digitized,’ Kelly says, ‘books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves.’ It is the digital equivalent of tearing out the pages of all the books in the world, shredding them line by line, and pasting them back together in infinite combinations. In his view, this results in ‘a web of names and a community of ideas.’ “

Who is right? Keen or Kelly, or neither? Here I, Goldhaber, just snipped Keen, who snipped Kelly. It’s not so alarming. The practice is as old as literature itself, or even older. The “Five Books of Moses” or The Pentateuch or Torah, better known to Christians as the first five books of the Old Testament, is clearly a compilation of texts with a variety of authors and origins. Some of these come from still earlier traditions such as the Book of Gilgamesh, the codes of Hammurabi, and no doubt a variety of tales handed down orally. Later, Jewish rabbis wove a huge series of comments and interpretations and further comments on and interpretations of those into a lengthy, multi-volume text known as Talmud. Today’s theologians keep this up with further commentary, and lay authors weave aspects of all these into countless texts, songs, plays, movie scripts, derivative music, etc.

(The snipping has sometimes gone even further, down to the level of letters. The medieval Aramaic Zohar was put together by Jewish mystics who believed the meanings of the biblical texts were to be found by viewing the letters of the words as a kind of code. Much later, around 1900, supporters of the idea that Francis Bacon wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare argued that Shakespeare’s First Folio was printed with two different sets of type, and that the two were placed so as to encode in binary statements about the actual authorship. )

Similar things happened with Greek mythology, woven into the oral tales later written down as the works of Homer, which were culled, added to and re-snipped to be the basis of the works of the great Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The Roman poet Virgil used Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as a basis and model for his Aeneid (a dreadful piece of gore, in my view) and the greatest poet of Italy, Dante Alighieri, used Odysseus’s passage into the underworld as one source of his Divina Commedia or Divine Comedy (which, in the translations I’ve seen, gets boring as he leave tough, cynical Hell —Inferno —and ascends towards sweeter-than-sugar Heaven —Paradiso). Not long after Dante, his fellow Italian, Giovanni Boccaccio, wrote a collection of tales probably based in part on earlier works, which he called the Decameron. Geoffrey Chaucer soon stole many of its stories – some by direct translation, with no authorial credit — for his own Canterbury Tales.

To jump to a later time and another medium, the earliest-produced installment of George Lucas’s space epic, Star Wars, was based in several ways on famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 Kakushi-toride no san-akunin or The Hidden Fortress, a samurai tale of Shogun-era Japan.  A later Kurosawa film, Ran, in turn is a Japanese version of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Here is what Alfred Harbage, in his 1958 introduction to the Pelican Shakespeare edition says about King Lear itself:
“The story of Lear and his three daughters was given written form four centuries before Shakespeare’s birth. How much older its components may be we do not know. Cordelia [Lear’s loving but mistreated daughter] in one guise or another, including Cinderella’s, has figured in the folklore of most cultures, perhaps originally expressing what [Ralph Waldo] Emerson saw as the conviction of every human being of his worthiness to be loved and chosen, if only his true self were truly known. The figure of the ruler asking a question, often a riddle, with disastrous consequences to himself is equally old and dispersed. In his Historia Regum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain] (1136) Geoffrey of Monmouth converted folklore to history and established Lear and his daughters as rulers of ancient Britain, thus bequeathing them to the chronicles. Raphael Holinshed’s (1587) declared that ‘Leir, the sonne of Baldud,’ came to the throne ‘in the year of the world 3105, at which time Joas reigned in Juda,’ but belief in the historicity of such British kings was now beginning to wane, and Shakespeare could deal freely with the record. He read the story also in John Higgins’s lamentable verses in A Mirrour for Magistrates (1574), and in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, II, 10, 27-32. He knew, and may even have acted in, a bland dramatic version, The True Chronicle History of King Leir, published anonymously as in 1605 but staged at least as early as 1594.

“…. [the earliest date  for Shakespeare’s version is after ] March 16, 1603, when Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration Of Egregious Popishe Impostures was registered for publication. That this excursion in ‘pseudo-demonology’ was available to Shakespeare is evident in various ways, most clearly in the borrowed inventory of devils imbedded in Edgar’s jargon as Tom o’ Bedlam….”

It is a good thing copyright had not yet been invented when Chaucer or Shakespeare worked, or we wouldn’t have much of their work. Besides, if eternal copyright were the law, as some have suggested, we would not have numerous careful, scholarly editions of Shakespeare now available to us, along with the numerous adaptations and even bowdlerizations (such as those by Thomas Bowdler himself in the early nineteenth century). Probably Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s works would have been long lost, as some heir, abashed, denied permission to reprint. No publisher could be quite sure who the rightful heirs were, and would certainly receive legal advice not to mess with the chance of being sued inherent in putting out an edition.

2. Attention Leads to New Works

In any medium, expression whether worthwhile or not, if anyone at all pays attention to it, has been influenced by earlier expressions and in turn often influences later ones, so that none stands in a vacuum. Expressive works of all sorts have always been transmitted, copied, riffed on, varied, quoted, translated, honored, given homages, lovingly or unlovingly parodied, satirized, pastiched, collaged, sampled, anthologized, excerpted, used as background, restated, adapted, and so on. Sometimes the whole work is lavishly reproduced, sometimes only a plot outline is kept, sometimes there are extensive quotes, sometimes only loose paraphrases. Everything of this sort took place long before the Web was a gleam in anyone’s eye. It is an inevitable result of paying attention to any work that it influences one, for better or worse, even one is an artist seeking to do something brand new.

3. Sitting by the Samovar

Keen specifically mentions Dostoyevsky.  Few non-Russians can fluently read his original words, instead having to settle for some translation. Which translation should you choose?  One way to decide is to compare them. It might be ideal to have many different translations available, so that you could flip from one to the other. It would also help to have at your disposal knowledgeable commentaries by Russian speakers very familiar with Dostoyevsky, though they will not necessarily agree among themselves. An average reader could not afford to buy all the necessary works, and it would be cumbersome to get them from a library, or even to make use of them if you had them all. You would have to open all the books, keep the pages turned to the right point, pick up each one when you want make a comparison, etc. It would be much handier if all the translations, all the critiques, all the bits of historical or biographical background, as well as the original, were on the Internet, and that you had handy ways to access it, much as Kevin Kelly proposes.

Andrew Keen is frightened of this, because he imagines it somehow means that the original version, of, say, The Brothers K (no, not Keen and Kelly, but Karamazov) would not remain itself, in easy reach also for anyone who sought it in itself alone. Or even that the good translations would not remain whole. I doubt that Kelly intended that, and, even if he did, the Internet does not need to work that way. There are plenty of ways that what each person expresses can be kept separate, even if someone’s expression is a mishmash of other people’s expressions, a sampling or collage or dictionary of quotations.

As long as an author has an any sort of audience there will be those who want to bask a bit in her reflected glory, getting attention through the attention that goes to the master. In effect, whatever their conscious motives this has long been the case for all those who prepare new translations, or who seek to edit critical editions or write biographies, or even find the work sufficiently interesting that they want to mention, discuss or brag about having read it. This group has a vested interest in ensuring that what they consider unadulterated versions of the master’s works will be available and easily discoverable online. Where they disagree, to be sure, they will put up variant versions, but these will all be available, accessible, searchable, and so on. Each work anyone cares about will be enriched, not lost at all.  If anyone took the trouble to mislead, by putting up a phony or adulterated version, fans of the author would quickly discover and denounce this, while making sure versions they consider authentic would remain findable.

I would rather trust in that kind of certainty than have to place my reliance on the local librarian, who might decide to clear the shelves of works that somehow no longer fit with local mores, limited shelf space, cataloguing requirements, or idiosyncratic policies. And I certainly would not be willing to rely on giant publishing conglomerates whose main motive is making a buck or increasing annual profits. Today printed books are commonly remaindered within a year of publication, and remain available only by dint of the Internet market in used books. An actual all-encompassing Internet library would be far more usable.

4. A Camel is Still a Horse Designed by a Committee

Keen implies that Kelly favors readers and — possibly — clumsy authors taking apart great works and rearranging them as multiple-author messes. I do think Kelly might have gotten a little carried away in that particular direction, but we don’t have to worry, partly for the reasons I just gave, and partly because of the nature of attention.

The glued-together kind of works that Keen thinks Kelly favors are usually not very attention-holding. In paying attention, as I have emphasized before, it is much easier to align one’s own mind to one other specific mind than with a whole crew, especially if the participants in that crew are not highly coordinated. A small group of very good jazz musicians may be able to jam together beautifully and coherently, but that sort of collaboration is rare, and rarely works well. You never hear a whole orchestra just jamming, because it would be impossible to follow. We do not find novels, plays, poems, paintings, sculptures or musical compositions with fifteen authors, and usually not even as many as two, unless their tasks are strictly sub-divided, or there is one clear leader for the whole work. Members of dance troupes work in coordination, not by individual whim, with one director or choreographer overseeing the totality of movement. Sports teams larger than those in doubles tennis have coaches who coordinate their practice sessions, decide on the range of plays they can handle and instruct them when to use different ones. We could not follow the plays otherwise.

What about movies? Anyone who sits through the credits rolling at the end of current ones sees that hundreds or even thousands of people are often involved. But they do not each work autonomously or have equal say. Rather, one, or sometimes two or still more rarely three equal collaborators shape each movie by directing and coordinating all the rest. Often the key person is the director, sometimes a screenwriter, sometimes a producer, or even an actor. But whenever more than one person is the key, conflicts can arise and the work loses coherence, to the point that virtually no one can pay close attention to it.

That was not always so, of course. Early books were simply collections of anything that could be copied and seemed to hold the copyists’ attention (as in fact Kelly points out in his article). But with the advent of printing, and in fact somewhat earlier, the idea of the author took pretty strict form, and as books became common, the one-author work predominated.  The fact that each book is a single physical item, visible for itself, whether on one’s bedside table, in a backpack or on a shelf, is a goad to reading it, picking it up again if one has started it, and basically reminding oneself of its separate and hopefully coherent existence. If you have access to all the books that have ever been written, even on a handy book-sized device you can carry around with you as conveniently as paperback, you will not have the same physical goad to continue reading where you left off. At the very least, a different kind of mental discipline than has been common will be required.

In today’s world, with so many calls on our attention, it is quite possible that many readers will lack the sustained concentration to get through an entire book. Though more novels are written than ever, the readership of “serious” novels seems anyway to be getting smaller. People buy thrillers to read on plane trips and then throw them away. Even that habit is under threat by onboard movie or video watching, whether on screens provided by airlines or laptops one takes along. But none of that implies the absence of a steady and even growing audience of truly dedicated novel readers, sub-divided into groups with different kinds of tastes, following different “schools” of literature, which also include comic-style “graphic novels,” such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

There is also an audience developing for extremely short fiction. Heretofore, the short story could not stand alone. Keen refers to one of the great Argentine fiction writer, Jorge Luis Borges’s articles, which was in fact a precursor to one of his typically very short stories, “The Library of Babel.” Borges made clear he thought novels were excessively long, and many of his stories were intended to imply that each described an actual much longer work. However, because his stories were so short, they simply could not be published individually, and either had to appear in magazines or as parts of collections. With the Internet, extremely short fiction a la Borges — or even shorter — can stand alone, as can mini-essays, poems, etc. (As with texts, since the 60’s or so, our styles of movie going or CD distribution left no room for what used to be known as short subjects> now they can burgeon once more. YouTube-style movies, a few minutes long, could one day have all the sophistication of a full-length film, collected in a very short space. )

For this shortening, the web provides a new means, but insofar as shorter attention spans are now perhaps normal, the web is merely a symptom, not a cause. The “ Western Canon” was under merciless attack in the groves of academe long before “today’s Internet.”  With the death of must-read literature has also come the fall of “Reader’s Digest Condensed Books” and “Book of the Month Club” and its ilk that chose each month what “middle-brow” readers needed to read. Intense calls on our attention come from sources such as the numerous TV channels, ubiquitous phoning, and much else that would exist even without an Internet.

Are all these trends terrible? Of course, in one way they are, in the sense that pleasure and the personal growth that comes about from immersing oneself in serious novels of some length is different from — and in some ways richer than — the obvious substitutes. It’s possible that people who do not take up and get through the challenge of serious literature will be shallower people with less-developed mental capacities than those who do. It is also possible — and indeed likely— that other attention-getting modes, even possibly including computer games, will take up the slack. In any event, since we cannot return to some glorious earlier time (nor would we really want to if we could) it still strikes me that the best way to hold on to what was good about the past is to increase opportunities to latch onto it, much more as Kelly suggests than Keen.

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