“The physical part of the reading experience — the paper, the cover, the reviews, the suntan lotion that spills on the pages — are all part of the reading experience,” said Michael F. Suarez, director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. “A week, a month, a year from now, if you see that paperback on the bookshelf, all of the memories are going to come back to you. It becomes an artifact and part of your humanistic experience.” […] “A digital book is not a book at all.”
This, in short, is really dumb. It’s the attitude that a lot of people in the publishing industry are taking, and it reminds me of the arguments coming out of the recording industry ten years ago. Albums are comprehensive, continuous works—you can’t break them up into individual songs. The album artwork is essential—people have to see the image on the front, the back, in the booklet. The experience of loading the record/tape/CD creates an anticipation that doesn’t come from the instant gratification of MP3s. If people don’t shop in record stores, there will be no serendipity. And so on. All of those arguments were dumb at the time, and are really just embarrassing in retrospect. (Earlier this week Jon Bon Jovi accused Steve Jobs of “killing the music business,” lamenting that “kids today” are no longer “making a decision based on the jacket, not knowing what the record sounded like.” He regards this as supporting evidence that electronic music sales are a bad thing. Blogger Davis Wiskus points out that there’s one group that doesn’t complain about the shift to digital music: People who buy and listen to music.)
It is entirely understandable, given his line of work, that Rare Book School director Michael Suarez treasures the artifact that comes to mind for most of us when we hear the word “book.” He’s in the practice of protecting, restoring, and teaching others to protect and restore physical books. So he could reasonably have said that he really likes books as a physical object. He could have said that, for a few hundred years, books as physical artifacts have been really important. But claiming that “a digital book is not a book at all” is just, well, dumb. Of course it’s a book. Let’s try a more modern version of the prior quote:
The physical part of the reading experience — the glossy screen, the weight of the battery, the reviews, the suntan lotion that spills on the case — are all part of the reading experience. A week, a month, a year from now, if you see that EPUB cover in iBooks, all of the memories are going to come back to you. It becomes an artifact and part of your humanistic experience.
There is nothing about any of these aspects that are fundamental to the transmission of ideas from the mind of an author into my own mind. Suntan lotion does not aid in this process. Suarez is confusing nostalgia with value, in a way that would be expected in a man twice his age (“I’d just used it that morning to wash my turkey, which in those days was known as a walking-bird”), but that he’s perhaps a bit young for.
The reason why this attitude is so destructive is because there are a lot of Michael Suarezes, and some of them occupy really important positions in the world of physical text. (It’s not really Suarez who I’m annoyed with—he’s just the trigger.) I’ve been seething for three and a half years after reading D.T. Max’s “Final Destination,” in the June 11, 2007 New Yorker. Max profiled the the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which is a stunningly well-funded literary archive that has been outbidding all other comers in their quest to amass the largest collection of manuscripts, rare books, and personal possessions of famous authors. When I started to read the story, I thought this was probably pretty great news. These collections have a way of getting scattered to the winds, winding up in personal collections where they’re of no benefit to anybody else. If UT Austin can afford to buy and preserve them, then Google or the Internet Archive can find them all in one place to get them online through their digitization efforts. Wrong.
[Center director Thomas] Staley’s conservatism extends beyond his literary taste. He does not want to place the Ransom’s archives online. He believes, quoting Matthew Arnold, that “the object as in itself it really is” can never be replaced by a digital reproduction. “Smell this,” he told me one time when I was in his office, as he picked up a manuscript box from the Edwardian British publisher Cecil Palmer. We inhaled the scent: tobacco, mold, dust. “See, there’s information in the smell, too,” he said.
That’s just awful. They’re limiting their collection to people who can afford to take a leave from work/school and travel to and stay in Austin because people can’t smell the books? That’s just asinine. It’s hardly any better than having them kept in a bunch of people’s attics. The 74-year-old Staley is still the director, and apparently his beliefs haven’t changed, because I can’t find a single page scan on their site. I wonder, if I visit, if he’d be OK with me squirting a little suntan lotion on the pages? For old times’ sake?
There’s an entire cottage industry of people writing about how a) e-books are killing writing and publishing b) e-books are inevitable but will require some adjustments and c) e-books are the greatest thing ever and dead trees are the worst. I’m not looking to leap into that here, so I will avoid the tropes of explaining how briefly books have been the things that we now know, and about how the loss of the oral tradition of stories was lamented centuries ago. I simply want to make the point that people like Staley and Suarez are Luddites who, in mistaking their own preferences for what is best for everybody, are playing their own roles—obviously much larger in the case of Staley—in preventing people from reading the very books that these men treasure. They’re creating a collection with a value that is going to become increasingly hypothetical, a function of its growing irrelevance stemming from its inaccessibility.
William F. Buckley famously wrote that “a conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘stop!'” I think that applies nicely here.