March 17, 2009 § Leave a comment
Nine years ago, I wrote a piece for the New York Times* about electronic paper, which had not yet come on the market. I wrote as one who had been addicted to books practically since birth, and who could remember the particular feel of a paperback that has fallen in the tub and dried out: swollen, a little crunchy, needing to be read carefully. I had a fondness for books that had survived immersion similar to my appreciation for my cat when he sat still and let me bathe him. Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, and Marjorie Morningstar were a few of my victims.
But now I have a Kindle and I can’t take it in the bath. (This isn’t really a problem, since my bathtub is not a nice place.) I’m perfectly happy to read in bed. Since I’ve only had the Kindle a few days, it makes me feel like I’m doing something important, as when I first learned to use a computer. Not the same, of course. The Kindle is easy. It’s also made me more vividly aware that in the next decade or two print newspapers and magazines will vanish, and books will exist in far fewer numbers. That makes me sad—I’ll never lose my emotional attachment to paper—but it’s okay. We learned to live without papyrus. Nobody practices penmanship anymore.The problem is figuring out how not to lose valuable digital records as technology leaps ahead.
Right now, there are a number of people preserving old hardware and transferring data to new systems. Libraries make and will make decisions on a continuing basis about what to keep, what to transfer. But history depends on the found object, the book or pamphlet that has sat unread in an attic or library for a 100 or 200 years and come out perfectly readable, if a little musty. My reflex answer is to keep printed copies of everything important, but that’s not going to be what happens. Instead, we’ll develop computers that can emulate the processes of old systems, and all data will have meta-information about its own compatibility requirements embedded. Then you’ll open, on your new machine, that old disk or file you found on your grandmother’s computer and be bored or amazed at the stuff she used to write; you’ll lift forgotten gems from her Kindle. That may not work forever, but it’s as far ahead as I can see.
Still, it’s a little scary that so many questions now are answered by: In the future, when we have these really awesome computers Not to mention what will result when the computers become sentient, which may or may not happen, but I think it will. Perhaps they’ll be like 19th century schoolteachers, feeding us only moral tales in an attempt to eradicate the beast in humanity. Perhaps they’ll whisper erotic stories in our ears as we sleep in order to stimulate the amusing spectacle of human desire. More likely they’ll write their own books, and novelists like me will grumble about the competition.
In the meantime, anything I write is going to be printed on acid-free paper, bound and stored in a cool dark place. When I get around to it, that is. And since it’s my birthday today, will somebody bake me a cake like the one in the photograph?
February 28, 2009 § Leave a comment
I’ve been in Florida for a week and went swimming for the first time today. It was lovely; I came home and promptly passed out. I was woken by the harsh ringing of Charles’ evil telephone—it’s an old-fashioned instrument, the color of dried blood, with a crocodile pattern, only used by telemarketers. This is because since 2007 he’s been checking his messages at most twice a year in order to subtly persuade people to call on his beloved iphone or go away. Some can’t be persuaded.
He came in the bedroom and took it off the hook to stop the ringing, but off course I soon had to get up to deal with the busy-signal yammering, and the sight of the receiver dangling from its curly cord brought back so many memories of hope, agony and loathing. Do kids today ever feel this amorous dread? They must want someone to call and someone else not to, fear calls they have to make, and so on. But the phone itself doesn’t seem to become the personification of what they feel; rather it’s a part of them, like their own ears (which makes it so upsetting when teachers confiscate them). If a woman were to rip her ears off for bringing her news that broke her heart, or mildly annoyed her, we wouldn’t all sigh with recognition, or complain, “What a cliché. Can’t these screenwriters ever think of something original?”
Which reminds me of Jeff Bezos laughing like a hyena on Jon Stewart the other night, discussing the Kindle. Stewart talked about the feel of a real, paper-and-glue book, its low-tech homey comfort. Others have rhapsodized about this. I could too—though I’d also like a Kindle. What we’re afraid of is losing everything we’ve projected onto books: their understanding, their silent dignity, their assurance of immortality (for some). Their independent life.
Once, I was idling in a bookshop, as I did so often in my youth, and saw a book on a low shelf, no dust jacket, with the title, Phone Calls from the Dead. I glanced at it several times, checking that it was really there and that was the actual title, but I didn’t pick it up. It stirred too many emotions, and not because I believed any of the departed had my number. But someone had written a book about it, the book had been published, and the shop had ordered it. The idea was made flesh. It was like seeing a voodoo doll that looked just like me, one pin quivering in the heart.
No way I’d get that feeling from an online list of titles available on Kindle. Anyway, I can read books on my iphone.
Now we’re going to the beach again. It’s 9:30, Saturday night, we’ve been hard at work since dinner (an early dinner that felt like lunch since I’d slept half the afternoon) and we’re taking the last of the wine to the dark gorgeous crash of the waves.