Saturday, December 18, 2010

a kaddish for the printed word

If I grade one more paper tonight, I think I will scream!

Problem is — I have another 4.5 years worth of papers to grade, and I won't scream. I never have screamed. I'll kvetch. I'll pull my hair. I'll eat chocolate. I'll complain a lot. And I'll look for something positive to say about them. And there will be something good to say.

What's positive?

First of all, they're on paper.

Not that my students want to submit their work on paper. After all, if you're just downloading shit, why not transmit it electronically as well? Why use good trees for this?

Okay, to be fair: I've read 2.5 good papers so far in the past week. So that's 2.5 out of 38. And that's just one class. And it took that long because I've been sick all week. Makes them all the harder to read. They hurt my kishkes.

But I didn't sit down to write about the demise of good writing. I actually wanted to say a word about the demise of writing and printing on paper. After all, what I'm writing right now doesn't warrant being written on paper. The question is, what does?

I can feel it happening. It's been creeping up slowly. Like vegetarianism. Like menopause. Like death. It started when one colleague began casually whipping out his iPad during our Study Group, and showing me that he had all the reading on PDFs and kindle formats. And my other colleague whipped out his iPhone, with the entire Talmud right there between his thumbs. We were sitting in my Library. Surrounded by paper. Paper in Victorian mahogany bookcases with glass doors. Protecting all that paper. Talmud on iPhone! Isn't that a sin or something? Or is it a mechiyah?

And now I look at my treasured collection, and what do I see? A fire hazard. An ecological genocide. A shanda.

I bought a book yesterday. Lev Grossman's The Magicians.

And now I'm thinking, is this book good enough to deserve the paper it's written on? Maybe only really good books should have the honor of real live paper? And who would it be who determines that?

And then I think of the end of Lucifer's Hammer. When the diabetic nerdy astro-physicist, Dan Forester, has carefully buried his most treasured books as 'the world is coming to an end' — and it's implied that it's his self-sacrificing actions that will lead to the rebuilding of civilization. (It is also implied that civilization is worth rebuilding, even if it's more romantic to think otherwise).

If you buried a kindle (or iPad or iPhone or iPod, or iBook) in the ground, after the disruption and destruction of all electronic communication, would any information at all have been preserved? Cloud technology begins to sound like a terrible idea from this perspective. Would all of Google, Wikipedia, JSTOR, AnthroSource still be — well, they'd all be gone, right? And I don't think I'd mourn the loss of online sources at all.

I'm sick of too much undigested information. I sure as hell am sick of download. Too much easy access to any superficial fact — that still requires analysis, but isn't getting it.

Remember the slow assimilation of hard found resources... The worldwide search for 19th century journals... Piecing the puzzle together bit by bit... all gives you the time to think, really think, about meaning. And when we scour the earth for that treasured manuscript, or missing folio — we meet people, and we talk to them. And they have another bit of the puzzle — and we collaborate. We fall in love in the Archives. We're curled up on the floor of the Stacks. We're intoxicated by the back corridors of used book stores. Curled up in a comfy armchair in a cozy incandescent library, with a fire going in the fireplace, and the rain pouring outside, and it's getting dark out... Maybe you're too young to remember that ...

Sorry. Sorry. I got a little over wrought there. Way too schmaltzy for words.

I mean, we could just sit home and download, right? And we can think we've found everything there is to know because we've Googled it. Wikipediated it. I mean, if it's only on paper, does it even count?

The paper that got me so pissed off considered something called 'Brainy Quotes' to be 'research.'

Throw a quote in here and there — professors like that shit, don't they? I've heard that more than once. To my face. And with a smile.

Okay. Yeah, I know — I'm spewing here. Conflating things.

This was gonna be a nice quiet post on the question of whether to spend hundreds of dollars (which will be equated with pre-Christmas dollars spent boosting the economy) on the purchase of an iPad — and never ever ever again purchasing another book. Or whether to forego the currently coveted contrivance, and stick to my love of paper and binding. But reading student papers all day long for the past few days has made me reconsider the value of the printed word altogether.

My colleague says he's still trying to figure out how to comfortably curl up with his iPad in bed at night to read. That a real live book still outperforms in bed.

I take this very seriously.

And how do kitties feel about electronics in bed? At present, Vlad waits patiently until the book is in place on the pillow before he climbs up and sits on it. Would Vladdie be equally comfortable on a kindle?

Here's what I've come to:

— I'm sick of reading papers.

— I'm still quite happy reading paper books.

— Somebody had damned well better have saved all the books in the world for when the electronics all go down.

— Only the finest of reading materials will do for kitty and human nocturnal satisfaction.

Conclusion: I get to keep the 500 bucks that I don't have for an iPad, and go out and buy just another book or two — for tonight...


  1. conflating consternations = life or something like it

  2. Sure. I think. Say a little more about that.

    Just realized that the discussion for this post is primarily at, and some of it's on facebook, and even more of it on email. and some on chat mode — and curiously, not one drop of it is on paper. Or the phone (which I abhor), or face to face.

    I'm gonna have to just bite the bullet, and post separately to each site. Which surely will split my brain in two, maybe right down the middle.

  3. hmm, lots going on here. Is the art of writing declining because of technology? I don't know ... I certainly empathize with your feelings about reading bad writing. I've been known to throw a manuscript (not yours) across the room and, yes, even scream.
    Separately, paper books are wonderful. You can pass one along with a kind of personal contact that doesn't happen when you just forward a link. And yes, in future centuries (or even decades) will our files even be readable? I just threw out two boxes of 5 1/2 " "floppy discs" -- remember them?
    I don't think the book will die. But I don't know what to do about the decline of writing ...

  4. Just today —the day after my posting this— Talk of the Nation on NPR had a segment on this very topic. Their conclusion: bottom line, there'll always be a place for the written word... albeit a more and more specialized and rarefied place.