W.DANIEL HILLIS [7.20.08]
For those of you who have not been following the action on the Encyclopedia Britannica blog, here is the latest: Clay Shirky dissed Tolstoy and Nicholas Carr zinged back with a smackdown about Clay's "highbrow form of philistinism". Ouch.
Clay Shirky is not just questioning Tolstoy, he is questioning the culture of literature. He asks, What's so great about War and Peace? Maybe it does have themes of power, fate, and personal responsibility, but it is really any more enriching than, say, a season of The Wire? And Shirky is not alone in his blasphemy. Back on the Edge, George Dyson is speculates, "Perhaps books will end up back where they started, locked away in monasteries (or the depths of Google) and read by a select few". For a readership of bibliophiles, this is treason.
I will confess that I too am a booklover, and I write these words surrounded by the comfort of well-filled shelves. I love the smell of musty bindings, the texture of soft paper, and the crispness of a well-turned page. I like what books have to say and how they say it. My thoughts follow naturally in the patterns of literature, my mental stride falling in easily with its pace. Unlike Clay Shirky, I actually liked War and Peace.
Yet, as much as I love books, I understand that my bibliophilia is not a virtue, but an indulgence. I associate books with insight and knowledge, but my respect is for ideas, not format. Shirky is right to call out the cargo-cult of literature. For many years books were the primary means by which important ideas were conveyed to us, we came to associate them with thoughtful insight. This association is out of date. As much as I liked War and Peace, I probably got more out of the The Wire. And why should that be surprising? More human effort can be put into a television series than a novel and more time is spent consuming it. If both are executed to their highest standards, with equal care, skill and insight, we might well expect less from the book.
Even if literature is losing its primacy in storytelling, we might still hold out hope that the book as the best way to covey a complex idea. What if the format of a book is specially matched to the way we think? I doubt it. It may be sometimes true that the length and pace of book is perfectly fit to certain arguments, but when that happens, it is a happy coincidence. There is nothing about the amount of content that fits into a hand-held paper presentation that has any special importance to the human mind. Nor is it easy to argue that printed squiggles have some privileged channel to thought.
A better argument might be that we have easier control over the pace and order of book than a video. That is true, but it points about the advantages of other media, such as linked interactive text, over books. Straight lines of thought and presentation can be a useful tool, but they are a constraint, not a unique advantage. Carr complains that his mind "now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles." This sounds pretty good to me. Seekers of knowledge will naturally gravitate toward the richest and most useful sources. They are gravitating away from books.
I put my love for books in the same category as my fondness for mechanical clocks. There is an art to them, and I a
Romance novels may have a future, but we are witnessing the sunset of the tome. I believe in George Dyson's vision of a tomorrow where books of knowledge are oddities, relegated to the obscure depths of monasteries and search engines. It makes me a little sad and nostalgic. But my sadness is tempered by the sure understanding that is neither the last nor the first change in format for our accumulation of wisdom. The book is a fine and admirable device, but I do not doubt that clay tables and scrolls of papyrus had charms of their own.