Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bell, Book, and Kindle

Google’s Library Project, an initiative to capture digitally the contents of major libraries across the world, has made it possible for someone like me, far from the centers of academia, to look at old books at my leisure. Google’s Book Search will discover and display very old objects; if the books are in the public domain, I can read them in the original—if I don’t mind staring at a screen or paying for the paper and the toner. An example of such a book (Google also let’s you “quote” it electronically) is the sampling of a 1758 biography you can see here. I could have lifted the page into this blog as well, because Google also let’s you “quote” it electronically; I didn't because it is too big.

Speaking of paper and toner, if my expenditures on these, used strictly to print books from the web, begin to approach $200, I would be well advised to spring for a digital reader; the cheapest of these are now available at around that price point. In addition to Amazon’s Kindle, I encounter BEBOOK and Plastic Logic as competent competitors—and my guess is that electronic giants (Sony comes to mind) will magically morph their handheld phones into almost paper-thin but pleasingly rigid book-readers with roughly pocketbook-sized displays easy to slip into a briefcase.

Dime novels surfaced about midway through the nineteenth century, but these were a far cry from serious books. As I recall my youth in Europe, books were expensive but highly-valued products in family cultures like my own. Their value—and here I mean both price and content—turned generations into obsessive collectors (and rescuers) of books. And every time we move, we re-live the curse of Marley’s ghost condemned to drag along behind him, where’er he goes, a chain of heavy ledgers; Marley had it easy compared to me. But these are burden we gladly bear; and people in my generation—and, as I’m observing, those in the next one too—put dumping books into the trash just short of infanticide.

The incredible power of symbolic compression that electronic storage has put in our hands pemits us to store 1,500 books on a Kindle 2—and the weight of those volumes in no way increases the weight of the reader itself. That weight? 10.2 ounces. But the Kindle is possibly not even a Model-T yet in this category; storage will increase. As people are wont to say, these days, looking at devices of this type—habituated to relentless, domineering, all-flattening, steam-roller Change—“That’s the future.”

Full Stop.

Bell, book, and kindle? The Encyclopedia Britannica informs me that the parent of that phrase refers to the ceremony of excommunication or anathema in Catholicism. The bell signified the public nature of the act, summoning the community of all believers; the book represented the Church’s authority; and the candle meant to symbolize that the anathamized individual might still repent. The thirteen clergymen administering the ceremony (a bishop and twelve priests)—and I like that number, always lucky for me—also carried candles as they entered the presumably always dark chamber in what is invariably called the Dark Age.

Now thinking of this I had one of those attacks the Germans call Galgenhumor, meaning “gallows humor.” What if, I thought, Bell, Book, and Kindle (here we could think of Bell as telephone) was another analogous ceremony? What if it symbolized the anathematizing of Modernity? Alas, such thoughts occur. But I’m just trying to be my age; old men are supposed to be grumpy. On a more sober level, the thought runs along these lines. Okay, assume that Kindle and its kind do indeed get cheaper, faster, slimmer, handier—indeed better and better and better. And suppose that books begin to fade away, as newspapers already seem intent on doing. Suppose that real books made of paper, glue, and board become cult objects discussed by tiny groups of aficionados. By analogy, yachting lives but transport by sailing ships is “The Past.” Let’s assume that all this happens. Could this curve really continue to go up, up, up and never down? Is that the way curves really work? I doubt it.

To change the subject—but yet still to stay on course—what is the future of fossil fuels? My favorite image is that humanity has been travelling on the surface of a huge bubble of oil. Imagine a soap bubble, if you please. We’re a vast, invisible bacterial culture on its surface. Now I have another image. It is that of the last spastic techie purchasing the last Kindle which contains every letter now contained in the Library of Congress—instantly accessible, perhaps, by a brain-implanted chip. And at that very moment, the bubble of oil bursts. I leave you with that image. I wonder if a drastically slashed per capita energy consumption obtained at much, much higher cost (see further here) will support what today we piously anticipate as The Future.

P.S. Brigitte after reading this (puns are contagious): "Could the grandchildren of our grandchildren go to bed with a candle instead of a Kindle?"


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica is useful... I love to read Britannica books...

  2. What a delightful take on the Kindle, books, excommunication, the decline of modern civilization, and such... The Bell, Book, and Kindle take as the anathematizing of Modernity, well, that was too good!

    Funny and a bit ironic that the first comment this post generated was from a spammer...