10.0367 real books (part 1 of 2)

WILLARD MCCARTY (willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Mon, 28 Oct 1996 22:02:14 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 367.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Greg Lessard <lessard@francais.QueensU.CA> (114)
Subject: Re: 'Real' books

Sorry for the delay in replying to the various postings: it's been one
of those weeks. There are one or two points I'd like to clarify, and a
distinction or two to make. Also, sorry for the length. To steal from
Pascal, if I had more time, I'd make this shorter!

1. Technology/technology, Book/book

It's probably important to distinguish two senses here. On the one hand
there's big-t technology versus little-t technology, and on the other
big-b book and little-b book. The first refers to the conceptual
categorization of a set of tools, the second to a particular
manifestation of these tools. So we can talk about the Technology of the
Book, meaning sequentially bound sheets, and the technology of a book,
meaning the particular stack of bound sheets in front of me just now.=20

Similarly, we can refer to the Technology of the Computer (meaning some
input mechanism, some processing and some output) as well as to the
particular technology of a particular computer (for example, a 486 100
Mhz machine running Windows95, with a .28 14" screen, etc.). So when
Willard writes:

Where I think the case for replacement is dubious is when the
computer is being used to model an activity for which it is
inherently unsuited, grossly overpowered, or both. If one is
READING a text rather than consulting it, why use a computer,
which at least now is too bulky to be very convenient, produces a
low-resolution image, and costs money to run? Seems silly to me.

he's talking sometimes about Technology and sometimes about technology.
The same tension occurs in Marta Steele's reply:

You can't pull an online publication off your shelf to show a
friend the book you've just published, nor will it sport a
custom-designed jacket with an artist's rendition of your theme.
It will not last a hundred years or more if well tended to;
maximum life of disks is at this point 25 years if you're lucky,
but we're always warned to back things up, etc., so I'd be wary
of that figure. When you publish something and have slaved years
over it, do you want to call it up on a screen as flickering
waves or admire something that is visually appealing and

Yet it's crucial to keep the two senses distinct. Take the case of
Book/book. The Book has an advantage over the Scroll by offering non-
sequential access (compare Tape and CD). However, the Book has problems
with reordering or textual manipulation. To test this, take Queneau's
"Cent mille milliards de po=E8mes" out of your library. This is a book
with slices of paper on each page, each of which contains a line of a
poem. Different slices can be folded up giving the indicated number of
total poems. This book pushes the limits of the Book; as a book, it's
also likely to be torn and taped. As a Book, it manages to give some
limited freedom, but doesn't allow, for example, reordering lines within
the same poem. On the other hand, another Technology like hypertext does
this easily, even if the technology (a six-pound laptop, for example)
still has shortcomings.

In short, we may have qualms about a technology, but we shouldn't let
this distract us from considering the Technology it exemplifies and
asking ourselves what its limits might be.

2. Reading

Drawing on old work in lexicography, let's distinguish three
perspectives on texts: consultative (looking up), discursive (reading
sequences of text) and esthetic (textual pleasure). One doesn't exclude
the others, but together, they allow us to characterize our ways of
dealing with varieties of texts. Consider the following table:

consult. discurs. esthet.

library catalogue + - -
dictionary + - -
encyclopedia + + -
journal article + + -
scholarly book + + -
novel - + +

On the surface, this looks nicely clean. We consult library catalogues,
but not novels. We treat novels as esthetic objects, but don't do the
same for dictionaries. But wait: some people would claim that Diderot's
Encyclop=E9die is an esthetic object. A number of authors of scholarly
books would consider that their work has important esthetic facets. How
about the numerous queries on HUMANIST itself asking which x said y, or
where x said y? Is this not consulting? Or how about a collection of
poetry? Do we ever consult it? So there appears to be some fuzziness

Now, we all know that there is a technologizing wave moving along which
has swallowed up library catalogues, most of dictionaries, most of
encyclopedias, is working on journals, and starting on textbooks. Should
we assume that this wave will be halted by the novel, or by books of
poetry because they are FUNDAMENTALLY different from other sorts of
text? My own expectation is that with the exception of books as art-
form, as described by Matthew Kirschenbaum, novels, textbooks and
scholarly works on paper will be essentially gone twenty years from now.
(Ask me again in 2016!) There are already hints around. I recently
stopped at a business supply store with a sideline in computing software
and hardware. They were selling a CD-ROM containing 350 stories (the
usual classics) for $24.95. I suspect that this will increase.

3. Attitudes

Willard worries that by concentrating on the electronic book, we cater
to only a fraction of the population. As he puts it: "Developed-nation
myopia is a seriously debilitating condition!" I would reply that we
can't change the world, but we can push or pull in one direction or
another. I'm also reminded of the discussion which took place in Canada
a number of years ago when the metric system was first proposed. There
were three groups at least to be found:

a) proponents of the new system who claimed that whatever its current
shortcomings, it was essentially superior to the imperial system;

b) opponents who resisted any change to a system which had worked
reasonably well for a long time;

c) the indifferent.

Now that the metric system has been adopted, we find layers of
generations. To grossly simplify, there are:

- the young, who know only metric
- the middle-aged, who know both metric and imperial
- the old, who know only imperial

I am struck by the analogy with the introduction of electronic
technology in the humanities. What concerns me is that in the replies to
date, I don't see much evidence of attitude a) when it comes to
electronic books. Are we all too old (or at least middle-aged)? Or
should we see it as our duty as computing humanists to push the limits
of information Technology, which means trying it out every chance we
get? After all, (1) it's fun, and (2) if we don't, who will?