Monday, 19 October 2009

Electronic Book Burning: a poet writes

While the various copyright issues involving Kindle and other e-books are the subject of the sort of restrained discussion that takes place when money is at stake, those whose commitment is to the culture of reading are far less inhibited. "The Electronic Book Burning", an essay by Alan Kaufman for the handsomely-produced online Evergreen Review, demonstrates this. The imagery of book-burning, the citation of Fahrenheit 451 and his threnody for the death of the bookstore make powerful and highly persuasive reading -- which itself triggers some provocative thoughts.

If one detaches from books the emotional and cultural significance that one's personal experiences has breathed into them, one might be able to concede that the e-book, no more and no less than the printed book, is primarily a medium and not a message. There were doubtless those who lamented the introduction of the printing press and the death of quill-on-parchment (not least the legions of scribes in religious orders, whose productiveness and penmanship were no longer needed), while others may have welcomed the relatively impersonal medium of the printed book where the text of each print-run was soul-numbingly identical in form and content.

But is not the conventional book, just like the e-book, no more than a barrier that separates the author, the poet, the scholar from the reader? If a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at each end of it, are not 'real' books and e-books alike a cultural medium with a sentient being at each end of them?

Changing the subject, it seems to me that Alan Kaufman makes an original point when he suggests that the outcome of the the Google Book dispute may somehow be less important to some of its participants than the fact of having participated in it:
"Some have chosen to oppose in the form of a mysterious lawsuit that one somehow belongs to if one is any sort of author, agent or publisher. Rumors abound as to the outcome of this lawsuit. Some claim that Google and the world's authors, living and dead, have reached a “settlement” but what it is no one seems to know for sure. Google has, apparently, the power to commune with authors in our dreams or even to contact and negotiate with deceased writers in the afterlife.

The reports given over NPR or in the Times as to the lawsuit's outcome appear to conflict. The truth is, few have any idea what the suit is about or how they got involved in the first place. It is a lawsuit reminiscent of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce in Charles Dicken's 'Bleak House'—a boundless ever-extending spiderweb engulfing everything and everyone in its fine legalistic filigree".
Unlike the settlement, which if played out will provide for winners (that is, Google) and losers, the dispute does not exclude anyone -- all may have an opinion, an interest, a stake. The Google dispute is in reality a giant multi-authored work in which all may write, a sort of judicial wiki where all are friends (amici curiae) even while all oppose.

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