Kindle defended by Matthew Battles, former rare-books librarian

image imageSven Birkerts, a book critic and tech skeptic who wrote The Gutenberg Elegies, took some swipes at the Kindle recently, and now Matthew Battles, a former rare-books librarian at Harvard, has replied. Just how important is it that you appreciate p-books in a paper context?

That's among the issues under debate here. As a writer, I myself am less interested in optimal presentation than in seeing my work stays alive and in distribution as long as possible. E can help. For The Solomon Scandals, I wrote somewhat shorter paragraphs so the book would display a little better on narrow iPhone screens. But if anything, that made Scandals more readable in its trade paperback version. Besides, my newspaperman narrator would probably tend to write in short paragraphs.

Meanwhile kudos to Battles for his thoughts below:

Birkerts worries that the Kindle will reduce the lives and works of our poets and authors to interchangeable packets of information buzzing through the network. When someone at a party he attends responds to a question about Wallace Stevens by calling a Stevens poem up on his BlackBerry, he frets that we may be "gradually letting go of Wallace Stevens as the flesh-and-blood entity he was, and accepting in his place a Wallace Stevens that is merely the sum total of his facts." Yet instant access to Stevens doesn't rob him of his place in a context; only forgetting him altogether could accomplish that. And forgetting is a corollary of the disciplining of access and the hierarchical imposition of taste. Given that Stevens is considered by some a "difficult" poet, his work could end up hard to come by in a world where tastemaking gatekeepers determine what gets published and distributed. But if my fourteen-year-old son can easily "call him up" on his BlackBerry, then I am a happy father. Such liberation of access can only enrich and deepen the historical imagination—extending its nourishment to new audiences.

Where both men are wrong: Neither essayist delves into issues such as e-book standards and DRM. Such matters are not abstractions, given the ultimate havoc that eBabel and "protection" may wreak on culture and on the availability of specific works in the distant future.

Birkerts almost gets into that territory when he writes: "My fear is that as Wikipedia is to information, so will the Kindle become to literature and the humanities: a one-stop outlet, a speedy and irresistibly efficient leveler of context." But he fails to consider the gateway angle in the context of proprietary vs. nonproprietary. DRM and eBabel mean that words will count less; technology and commercial agreements, more. I’m all in favor of copyright and of writers and publishers prospering. But let’s do this by making books widely available rather than penning them up. Do we really want one company, Amazon, to enjoy such influence over our culture? Right now Amazon is not censoring, for example, but how about the future? Look at the Walmart-style mindset of the ayatollahs running Apple’s App Store for the iPhone and iPod Touch. I fear that the city room language in Scandals may keep it from being an App Store book despite a critic’s favorable assessment.

Meanwhile thanks to Court Merrigan for spotting the Battle piece. Stay tuned later today for Court’s review of Junk Sick, Norman Savage’s memoir. Were it not for E, we probably would not be able to read the memoir. Talk about an example of the usefulness of the new technology! Oh, and by the way, I doubt that the Apple ayatollahs would approve of Junk Sick, either.

2 Comments on Kindle defended by Matthew Battles, former rare-books librarian

  1. Bikerts’ concerns that electrons will somehow rob the essence out of someone’s work is the greatest balderdash that purists like to spout… is it somehow better when an author’s work is reduced to machine-printed blotches of ink on thin bleached sheets of wood pulp? It’s illogic, being tenaciously held onto by people who cannot see the value of something simply because it is different, and lionizing the familiar despite its clear flaws.

    “It’s not the medium, it’s the message” is the single thing that should be said to anyone who questions digital media of any sort.

  2. This column by Wally Dobelis represents my feelings

    Collecting signed Ernest Hemingway books
    In a recent trip, chatting with fellow-passengers about the books we carry, an Ohio schoolteacher denounced paper reading material as obsolete, and non-green. He only reads Kindle books and free newspapers on Internet (NYTimes was mentioned). His wife chimed in that library books spread germs.

    All that made me sick, no fault of germs, and turn green (nothing personal, fellow environment cherishers). Old books have been part of my life, and libraries were my playgrounds. People collect old porcelain for its beauty and old paintings for their grace and history, and old books because that’s where knowledge resides. A New Yorker writer recently examined Kindle-available titles against his library and found very few meaningful authors electronically represented. A matter of time, you say? Eventually the libraries will be superfluous and un- necessary? Maybe, and so will be brains and thought processes, since all knowledge and opinions (qualified by polls or ayatollahs) will be retrievable from data bases and TV.

    I admire books, old, particularly those signed, touched by the author. It is like shaking hands with the mind I admire. My particular mental puzzle is Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), a man with a consistent handwriting, easily recognizable and forgery prone. What was in his mind when he turned the gun on himself in lonely Ketchum, Idaho? Whenever I visit a rare book show, I study the copies of his titles. He seemingly inscribed many books to unidentifiable friends and casual way companions, but had only one , his best remembered book, A Farewell to Arms, published in a 510 copy limited signed first edition, encased in a tight box, guaranteed authentic .

    Speaking of boxed limited signed editions as a whole, they are pernicious to the survival of the book in a pristine condition; taking the copy in and out is destructive of the vellum or cloth spine. I never dare to do it without permission, for fear of making an inadvertent perilous move.

    Speaking as a collector, of the 510 Hemingway’s 1929 first edition Farewell to Arms limited signed copies only a few have survived in fair condition, and only one in pristine condition, with the box fully complete, an important point. It is for sale at Glenn Horowitz’s book emporium in New York. I have wondered whether the book’s condition survived because the owner broke the edges of the pristine box and restored them more loosely, to gain access to his own treasure without damaging it. (Glenn Horowitz, incidentally, is an internationally known dealer who finds homes for Presidents’ and authors’ personal collections, accessible by appointment).

    Alas, the pleasures of collecting treasures are scary in a recession environment. People are looking for values that will resist the inflation lurking around the corner that certain economists warn us about. I have a neighbor who talks of relying on gold, incessantly, in elevators and in the building lobby. Old paintings and porcelain are part of the thinking; many modern pieces of art have not been time-tested, and some of the most avant-garde ones are made of organic materials that deteriorate, and should really come with a restorer’s guarantee, essentially an insurance policy. I will stick with the old values, old books from the 1600s and 1900s are surviving pretty well.

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