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Editor's Choice: Books, Bytes, and Beyond.

William Arms, Digital Libraries. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2000. 287pp. $45.00 (cloth).

Jorge Luis Barges, Selected Nonfictions. New York: Viking, 1999. 559pp. $40.00 (cloth).

Jorge Luis Barges, Selected Poems. New York: Viking, 1999. 477pp. $40.00 (cloth).

Guglielmo Cavalloa and Roger Chartier, eds., A History of Reading in the West. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. 478pp. $40.00 (cloth).

Brendan Dooley, The Social History of Skepticism: Experience and Doubt in Early Modern Culture. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 213pp. $39.95 (cloth).

Michael E. Hobart and Zachary S. Schiffman, Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. 30lpp. $29.95 (cloth).

Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 753pp. $40.00 (cloth).

Paul Levinson, Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium. New York: Routledge, 1999. 226pp. $27.95 (cloth).

Paul Lunenfeld, ed. The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. 298pp. $35.00 (cloth).

Paul Saenger, Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. 480pp. $65.00 (cloth).

Dan Schiller, Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. 294pp. $29.95 (cloth).

Since I wrote about Jorge Luis Barges's Collected Fictions in my last "Editor's Choice," his Selected Nonfictions and Selected Poems have been published. The three volumes make available in uniformly good translations almost all of Barges's significant work. They also remind us that in exploring the resources of the book, Barges blurs the line between genres; his poems can seem like stories and his nonfiction like fiction.

One of the themes in all of his work is the nature of the book itself. In Selected Nonfictions, Barges alludes to a sight that troubled St. Augustine, St. Ambrose reading a book without pronouncing the words. "That man passed directly from the written symbol to intuition, omitting sound; the strange art he initiated, the art of silent reading, would lead...many years later, to the concept of the book as an end in itself, not as a means to an end" (360).

Much of Borges's work can be read as a prescient elegy for the book. While Borges died before it was recognized that the age of the book was coming to end, we are now in a transitional period when digital technology is replacing the printed book as the primary mode of producing, organizing, and distributing knowledge. A spate of books has made us self-conscious about books as artifice, about reading and writing as culturally learned and supported activities, and about a future in which the book will no longer be central to our intellectual, educational, and cultural life.

The fruit of twenty years of research, Space Between Words, by Paul Saenger, defends "the thesis that the separation of words, which began in the early Middle Ages, altered the physiological process of reading and by the fourteenth century enabled the common practice of silent reading as we know it today" (ix]. Since Saenger works closely with manuscripts, parts of the book are accessible primarily to medieval scholars. Nonetheless his book forces us to become aware of writing and reading as culturally shaped activities. He makes the point that silent reading is an achievement that depends on a specific kind of writing, that is, on how the text is presented. If there is no word separation or punctuation (scripture continua) -- as was the case in the Greco-Roman world of antiquity -- much effort is required to "read" what is in front of you. Readers in the ancient world had to read aloud in order to determine the sense of the words, which made the process of reading slower than one demanding only comprehensio n of the graphic image.

The beginning of silent reading and the culture of the book as we understand it today began with the Irish and Anglo-Saxon scribes in the seventh century. "The reintroduction of word separation by Irish and Anglo-Saxon scribes marks a dramatic change in that relationship and constitutes the great divide in the history of reading between antique cultures and those of the modern Occident" (12). Saenger's book gives an account of how "during the course of the nine centuries following Rome's fall, the task of separating written text, Which had been for half a millennium a cognitive function of the reader, became instead the task of the scribe" (13). It also teases out the implications of silent reading. "The importance of word separation by space is unquestionable, for it freed the intellectual faculties of the reader, permitting all texts to be read silently, that is, with eyes alone. As a consequence, even readers of modest intellectual capacity could read more swiftly, and they could understand an increasing number of inherently more difficult texts" (13). Other innovations, like attention to word order, discrete clauses and emblematic punctuation, aided the process of understanding more effectively and more rapidly. "Whereas the ancient reader had relied on aural memory to retain an ambiguous series of sounds as a preliminary stage to extracting meaning, the scholastic reader swiftly converted signs to words and their order might quickly be forgotten. Memory in reading was primarily employed to retain a general sense of the clause, the sentence, and the paragraph" (254).

Commenting on St. Augustine's surprise at the seemingly silent reading of St. Ambrose, Saenger adds to Barges's description. "Ambrose's peculiar habit of reading silently with only the eyes and mind amazed Augustine, but when Ambrose read silently, given the constraints of ancient writing, he could not have read rapidly in the manner of the modern silent reader, even if he had wanted to do so. Indeed, Augustine suggests that Ambrose read silently either to seek privacy by concealing the content of his book or to rest his voice" (8). If one read aloud, the content of the book would be known to all. Saenger connects the rise of erotic poetry and of heresies to the innovation and acceptability of silent reading. "Alone in his study, the author, whether a well-known professor or an obscure student, could compose or read heterodox ideas without being overheard" (264). Even writing was dictation until word separation became the norm. It was hard to explore ideas -- sensual or sinful -- in private. Oral reading and writing, demanded by scriptura continua, made everything public, under the watchful eyes and heedful ears of the community. Without silent reading, Saenger argues, our cultural situation would be remarkably different from what it is: "This enhanced privacy represented the consummation of the development of separated writing and constituted a crucial aspect of the modern world" (276).

A History of Reading in the West forms a useful backdrop for Saenger's book. In a series of articles, it traces the technological and cultural aspects of reading from the ancient world to the contemporary world. The codex, the forerunner of the modern book, replaced the papyrus roll or volumen, which was expensive and unwieldy. A volumen was about nine or ten inches wide and about thirty feet long and presented the informational equivalent of a modern book chapter. The increase in the number of codices or books and the breaking up of knowledge into sections within them led away from "intensive and repetitive reading of a limited number of books [and] gave way to scattered reading of many books" (18). The printing press encouraged this trend and "permitted the circulation of texts on a scale hitherto impossible" (22). Yet the processing of all of this information would not have been possible if silent reading had not become the norm, and this revolution took place centuries before the printed book. Picking up Saenger's point, the editors conclude, "silent reading initiated a commerce with writing that was potentially freer, more secretive, and wholly internal" (24).

A revolution in reading occurred in the eighteenth century when "intensive" reading shifted to "extensive" reading. "The 'intensive' reader had access to a limited, closed corpus of books, which were read and reread, memorized and recited, deeply understood and possessed, and transmitted from one generation to another. The 'extensive' reader devoured a large number and a wide variety of ephemeral print materials. These new readers read rapidly and avidly, subjecting what they read to a critical regard that spared no domain from methodical doubt" (24--25). Historically, intensive reading could not survive the proliferation of books on more and more topics. One might read certain works intensively -- the Bible for example -- but one must read many books to keep up with one's chosen area or with what was happening in the world or in the arts.

The final revolution in reading is the development of electronic texts. "Reading a monitor screen is not the same as reading a codex. The new representation of writing changes many things. First, it alters our notion of context by replacing the physical contiguity among the texts present in one object (a book, a journal, a newspaper) with their position and their distribution in the logical architectures that govern data bases, electronic files and the retrieval of systems and key words that make it possible to access information. It also redefines the 'material' nature of works by shattering the physical connection that used to exist between the print (or manuscript) object and the text or texts it bore and by giving readers (rather than the author or the publisher) control over the organization and the appearance of the text that they bring up to the screen" (26-27). Digital books allow the reader to intervene in the book in ways that printed books, with texts that cannot be altered, do not allow. The dist inction between reading and writing begins to blur.

Like A History of Reading in the West, Information Ages also presents a long historical vista, extending from the ancient world to the present. However, its authors focus on information and its technical underpinnings rather than reading. Hobart and Schiffman discern three information ages. The Greek classical age produced the alphabet and writing which removed meaning from the flux of orality and created various ways of organizing information about the world. "Information is thus wedded to writing insofar as writing gives stability to the mental objects abstracted from the flow of experience, such that one can access them readily and repeatedly" (30).

The second information age involved the printing press. "The surfeit of books and information generated by the print revolution contributed directly to the overburdening and rupture of traditional forms of classification. In turn, this rupture helped clear the way for new, more abstract means of managing information" (5). The rise of science and especially modern mathematics made these new ways of managing information possible. Numeracy or mathematical literacy gave the modern world a new way of understanding and classifying experience.

The last age of information, the contemporary, goes beyond the mathematical abstractions of the second age, because it is "expansive rather than reductive and open-ended rather than closed" (6). The authors conclude that "with marriage of symbol and circuit in the twentieth century, our contemporary information age has reworked the techniques and products of analysis and has taken abstraction a giant step further" (267). They are essentially referring to the binary system at the basis of computer language that reduces all information to a series of 1s and 0s. Because it is now much easier to produce, store and distribute information cheaply, we will be hard pressed to control and understand that information. How we do that will be the result of decisions that we will make about how new technology will be used. It will not be the technology but we who determine the future of the technology. An instructive example of how this process might work is the printed book. It was an innovative technology which the com munity had to decide how to use and absorb.

Adrian Johns in The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making argues that "what we regard as essential elements and necessary concomitants of print are in fact rather more contingent than generally acknowledged. Veracity in particular is, it is argued, extrinsic to the press itself, and had to be grafted on to it. The same may be said of other cognate attributes associated with printing. In short, The Nature of the Book claims that the very identity of print itself had to be mode" (2). Johns links the rise of the book with the rise of science and philosophy. In order for the results of science and philosophy to be accepted as trustworthy, the medium in which those results are presented had to be stable and reliable. This epistemological trustworthiness, in turn, required a technology that was culturally trustworthy. "The experimental paper, the philosophical journal, the book review, the editor, and the experimental author were all original creations. They may be plausibly seen as mechanisms for making and protecting the credit of documentary evidence when that credit was otherwise insecure" (464).

A new technology carries in its wake a new awareness of the currently dominant technology. It is no accident that with the advent of computer technology, print technology, especially the book, has been subjected to rigorous analysis. Johns reminds us that the way we regard the book today was not the way it was regarded when it first came on the scene. In a sense, the modern book had to be invented, that is, it had to be shaped and accepted by the culture in which it found itself. Early readers could not be sure that the listed author of the book they were perusing was in fact the actual author or even whether the content of the book was the content intended by its actual author. "Trusting in such an object meant vesting valuable faith in something very unlike the printed book familiar to readers at the end of the twentieth century" (622). He adds that "hitherto, historians have rather taken at face value the persuasive power of printed materials to affect the perceptions and actions of their readers; The Nat ure of the Book has conceded that this power came to exist, but it has seen it as a hard-won and brittle achievement" (623). It is an important achievement because "the deployment of identical texts and images on a very large scale is central to the experience of modern life" (629). Even so, the fixity of print necessary to that deployment is not inherent in print, but "was a matter of convention and trust, of culture and practice" (633).

Print as a technology needed to be culturally absorbed and in that absorption, the characteristics we associate with it came to the fore. Many of the questions raised about computer technology will be resolved in a similar way. As the technology is used and absorbed by the culture its lasting characteristics will emerge. Johns warns us that "the contention that the cultural significance of print can properly be understood only in fully contextual terms should hold good a fortiori for modern communications technologies. In this age of worldwide networks, e-mail, fax, photocopiers, word processors, desktop publishing, and satellite communications, it is especially important that we attain a judicious understanding of the role we accord such devices in our own society. Such an understanding will need to include not just the results of these technologies, but the social and cultural foundations of their authority" (637]. In a word, no communications technology is "intrinsically authenticating" (638).

In The Social History of Skepticism, Brendan Dooley explores territory similar to that of The Nature of the Book. He argues that epistemological skepticism was not the only force undermining truth claims in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As printed sources became the norm, it was thought that skepticism could be overcome. "For the first time, printed information seemed to fix the unfixable, to render permanent the ephemeral, to put a hard finish on the ragged edge of early modern times. It seemed to hasten closure of the itinerary of a rumor, to dam the fluid boundaries between various versions of reality and myth within the rigid terms of a single conclusion. Hard copy seemed to promise hard fact. That, at least, was the expectation; that was the ideal; and that was the intended impression" (129).

Unfortunately, this expectation was disappointed because uncertainty and skepticism still permeated the atmosphere, although they took a new form. The medium of print could "put casual misinformation into a deceptively permanent form. The results could be supremely unsettling. Seeing a lie in print was not the same as hearing it from a neighbor or seeing it in a manuscript newsletter. A lie in print was an invitation to join the community of the deceived" (129). In other words, print by itself did not insure truth. Printed sources had to be compared and the authors' reputations considered before deciding to accept their veracity. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many writers attracted readers, not by touting the interesting nature of their subject, but by reminding the public that they had been duped by other works, and by offering them the real truth (130). Print conveyed opinion not certainty. Readers had to become critics. Eventually, modern historiography came into being as a way of insuri ng accuracy and correctness. But this was a decision of the culture not of the technology. By the same token, what happens to the Web will be a decision of the culture not the technology.

What is contemporary culture deciding about how digital technology should be absorbed? A flood of "digital" books with digital in their title should alert us that we are beginning to make that decision. Digital Capitalism, a very good introduction and overview of computer technology's impact, details changes in our economic, social, and education life. As late as the 1980s, the Internet was primarily an educational technology that allowed dispersed researchers to communicate with one another. In the 1990s the Internet became primarily a commercial technology. Schiller points out that "in 1995, the total number of commercial Internet sites exceeded the number of educational and governmental sites for the first time; the percentage of Web sites running from the .com domain shot up from 1.5 percent in June 1993 to 50 percent in January 1996" (144).

We are seeing a major shift from expert to expertise. Instead of being located in the professional expert, expertise is located in databases that can be accessed by anyone. We still need guides, but they will not control access to expertise the way professionals control it now. We want expertise; we don't want experts. Expertise is respected even when experts are not because expertise gives us information on which we can base our decision, while experts too often try to make that decision for us. For example, services like Ask the Doc (offered free at, which supply medical information in an informal and unpressured situation, are flourishing. It is estimated that last year about 22 million Americans went online to seek medical information. Next year the number is expected to be 33 million. The result is more informed decisions being made by patients in contact with medical expertise but free from the paternalism of medical experts.

Libraries will also play a new role in the future. In Digital Libraries, William Arms surveys the entire field of digital libraries. The middle chapters can be dauntingly technical at times; the earlier and later chapters will be most interesting and accessible to the general reader. Like conventional libraries, digital libraries organize, store, and distribute information. However, they perform these tasks in ways that their advocates claim is more efficient and effective than traditional libraries. They make information available to more people more cheaply and more efficiently because users do not have to go to a place. It is easier to search and browse in a digital library; information can be shared more easily; information is more current and more available; and new forms of information are made possible. I found this last point intriguing. Arms explains: "Even when the formats are similar, materials created explicitly for the digital world are not the same as materials originally designed for paper and other media. Words that are spoken have a different impact from words that are written, and online textual materials are subtly different from either the spoken or the printed word. Good authors use words differently when they write for different media and users find new ways to use the information. Materials created for the digital world can have a vitality that is lacking in material that has been mechanically converted to digital formats, just as feature film never looks quite right when shown on television" (6).

Arms is most useful when he reminds us that we are in a transitional age and therefore should not try to anticipate what the eventual outcome -- or terminology -- will be. "Word processors supplanted typewriters in barely ten years. Card catalogs in libraries are on the same track. In 1980, only a handful of libraries could afford online catalogs. Twenty years later, card catalogs are becoming historic curiosities in American libraries. In some specialized areas, digital libraries may completely replace conventional library materials" (19). What these new libraries will be like remains to be seen because "today's web is a beginning, not the end" (38). The advances in building digital libraries "can be seen as extending the basic building blocks of the web. We can expect that twenty-five years from now digital libraries will be very different, and the early days of the web will be hard to recall. The names 'Internet' and 'web' may be history, or they may be applied to systems that are unrecognizable as descen dants from the originals" (38).

In the last chapter he concludes with words that are a useful guide in this transitional age. "One possible interpretation of the current situation is that digital libraries are at the end of an initial phase and about to begin a new one. The first phase can be thought of as a movement of traditional publications and library collections to digital networks. Online newspapers, electronic versions of scientific journals, and the conversion of historic materials all fall into this category. Fundamentally, they use new technology to enhance established types of information. If the thinking is correct, the next phase will see new types of collections and services that have no analog in traditional media. The forms that they will take are almost impossible to anticipate" (264).

The reality is that online one can store everything; the clamor of new and controversial fields for books and journals can be met. Cultural gatekeeping, preserving those works that will shape the cultural memory of the future, will be easy: save everything. Books are solid and locatable; the new electronic versions will be disincarnate, existing on cybershelves. Books will continue to exist, but their cultural weight and authority will wane along with the weight and authority of the culture that produced them.

We need to remind ourselves that what is at stake in not so much the book as print culture itself. Not all print impressions are books. Travelers Insurance Co. produces about a billion impressions a month, and the printed documentation accompanying a new Boeing 747 weighs almost as much as the plane -- about 350 tons. Would anyone shed a tear if this information were to be put online? Think of all of the trees that would live. In the future, print will not define the organization and presentation of knowledge as it has for the last five or so centuries.

Let me briefly mention two other "digital" books. The Digital McLuhan credits McLuhan with anticipating the Web. It is good to be reminded of McLuhan's ideas about media. He recognized that the ability of the computer to store and retrieve data -- the view many had of it in the early days of computer technology -- was left over from print culture. "The real job of the computer" he wrote, "is not retrieval but discovery" (286). He went on to make the larger point that our thinking about new technologies or new media lags behind the impact that they have on us. It is certainly the case today that the impact of computers is ahead of our thinking about them. The computer will become the medium by which the computer is understood. McLuhan maintained that the content of a new medium was invariably an old medium. The content of print is writing, the content of writing is speech, and the content of speech is thought. What is the content of the computer? My guess is that it represents the process of thought rather th an the product of thought.

The Digital Dialectic reminds us that the content of art is also being transformed by computer technology. The book can be technical at times, but the various essays are a useful introduction to how the aesthetic potential of the computer is being realized. The basis of a digital aesthetic is its evanescence: "Nothing ages faster and becomes inaccessible quicker than electronic media. And bit rot (a lovely, though all too appropriate, coinage to deal with the digital's always dated qualities) is almost immediate on the World Wide Web, with sites popping up and falling away like flowers in the desert" (xx). Artistic stability associated with painting or architecture is not part of the new digital aesthetic. We must recognize the "mercurial qualities" of the digital media, and treat them "like theatrical performances or dance recitals" (xx). "We accept dance's transience as no small part of its power. We should do the same for digital culture" (xx).

The printed book as the primary delivery system of literary art comes under scrutiny. "Books have been on the way out for most of the twentieth century. Our dreams are no longer located between their covers" (135). Digital technology challenges the "linear text, with specified start and end points. The matrix in which electronic texts float is quite different -- a flexible environment that allows multiple layers" (146). Some claim that the book will never be replaced because digital books will not be able to do for the reader what the printed books can. First of all, we are at an extremely early stage of the development of the digital book. I believe that it will eventually be as comfortable to use as the printed book. But that will turn out to be beside the point. What is of crucial importance is that the digital book will do what the printed book cannot do. For example, it will have images interact with the user, increasingly intelligent search engines, virtual environments that the user can enter and expl ore, and vast quantities of accessible information. The activity of reading will also change. "Reading will move away from paper, as writing started to do ten years ago. This augurs a new era of design, for machines have long been used for writing, very few have been developed through history for reading" (148).

An interesting century awaits us. Its end will be more unrecognizable than the end of the twentieth would have been to some living at the end of the nineteenth. However, what we must understand is that technological advancements do not bring with them a fixed notion of how they will be absorbed by the culture. It is not up to the technology, it is up to us. Just as the book was a technological advance which could be absorbed in diverse ways by the culture, so too digital technology will be absorbed differently over time and in different areas of our culture, but it will be our decision as to how best we shall use it. In the epilogue to The Moker, Borges explains it this way: "A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Over the years he fills a given surface with images of provinces and kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, rooms, instruments, heavenly bodies, horses, and people. Shortly before he dies he discovers that this patient labyrinth of lines is a drawing of his own face." As we create the new digital culture we will discover our own face because after all it is our technology.

JAMES GILES is book review editor for Cross Currents.
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Publication:Cross Currents
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Date:Sep 22, 2000
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