Thursday, January 13, 2011

What Are Books For?

The Winter 2010 Phi Beta Kappa newsletter includes an article called "What Are Books Good For?" by William Germano. The author starts by listing the four great "epochal events" in the evolution of the book: The invention of writing; the codex (book as we know it, with pages and a cover) as a replacement for the scroll; printing with movable type; and of course the e-book.

It's interesting, by the way, that digital texts take a step backwards in one sense. They revert from the codex to the scroll, and there are good reasons why the former has dominated the field for so many centuries. A book with pages you can flip through at will is simply easier to find a particular passage in; the electronic search function tries hard to make up for this problem but is far from perfect.

Germano also discusses two "great dreams" of scholarship that are currently coming true: "universal access to knowledge" and "knowledge building as a self-correcting, collective exercise" (e.g., Wikipedia). Both of which, of course, depend on the Internet. I'm reminded of another Asimov prediction I noticed while scanning some of his essays last week, the dream of a worldwide encyclopedia anyone could access. Well, we're there!

Germano asks whether the "book" is the physical object the holds the text or "the knowledge that the hidden text is always prepared to reveal"? He answers that the book is both, and he commendably points out that a book can exist in any binding or in an electronic reading device.

His answer to what books are good for—they encase knowledge. "Books take ideas and set them down, transforming them through the limitations of space into thinking usable by others." Not only ideas, I'd point out, but emotions and sheer entertainment. He maintains, however, that even argument is a form of narrative; storytelling is central to writing. Well said!

Another interesting point, which I think might be problematic. He says, "Narrative is rarely collective" and is not "infinitely expandable." It has a "shape and temporality" and, like human lives, an ending. True, one way to look at genre is in terms of what slice of life a given story presents and where it chooses to declare an end. Cut off the narrative in one place, and you have comedy; in another, tragedy. Yet in the realm of fan fiction we often encounter shared worlds that go on indefinitely. Not to mention the older narrative form of the soap opera, where the story spins on from week to week and year to year without ever reaching an end.

Germano concludes by declaring that ideally "books are luminous versions of our ideas, bound by narrative structure so that others can encounter those better, smarter versions of us." I'd love to believe my readers see a "better, smarter" version of me.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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