Wednesday, July 05, 2006

John Updike is no Renaissance Man

Speaking of books, I just came across John Updike's essay in the Sunday New York Times Book Review of two weeks ago, which the Review credits as an adaptation of an address Updike gave at last month's Book Expo in D.C. Appropriately enough for his venue, Updike celebrates the glories of the material book and expresses concern for its future--as well as for the future of booksellers. Although this isn't a novel subject, it's also not, you'd think, one that a bibliophile could find much to quarrel with.

Except. Except that much of Updike's essay is devoted to fretting over an article in last month's Times Magazine, written by Wired magazine writer Kevin Kelly, which enthuses about "Google's plan. . . to scan the contents of five major research libraries and make them searchable," thus making all the books in those libraries freely and openly accessible on the web.

What does Updike object to about this project? It's not the threat to booksellers, really, or even precisely the threat to authors, but rather the "anarchic nature" of the universal library that Google would create. Updike quotes Kelly to demonstrate how ghastly this future would be:
"Once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. . . . These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or 'playlists,' as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual 'bookshelves' — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf's worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these 'bookshelves' will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages."
Huh, I thought. That sounds rather familiar. Rather Renaissance, even--commonplace books weren't searchable, of course, but they were full of random bibs and bobs of sentences and paragraphs, poems and passages, culled from a wide variety of sources: a clever epigram here; a dirty poem there; and bits of wisdom on all kinds of topics throughout. They were considered an important part of one's education and crucial to developing into a knowledgeable and well-spoken individual. (And of course, many writers today follow a similar practice of notebook-keeping.)

However, Updike doesn't see it that way. He continues:
This is, as I read it, a pretty grisly scenario. "Performances, access to the creator, personalization," whatever that is — does this not throw us back to the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value? Have not writers, since the onset of the Gutenberg revolution, imagined that they already were, in their written and printed texts, giving an "access to the creator" more pointed, more shapely, more loaded with aesthetic and informational value than an unmediated, unpolished personal conversation?
Uh, no. This does not "throw us back to the pre-literate societies," John. Like I said: consider the commonplace book. Or the miscellany. Or the personalized bound volumes that many early modern readers created, where they'd take a bunch of pamphlets or even entire books and have them bound together into one "personalized" volume. Some of these volumes, when we look at them today, make thematic sense--all their items are on one topic or in one genre (they may all be sermons, for example, or all pamphlets on ecclesiastical government)--but many of them reflect their authors' idiosyncratic, magpie tendencies in the same way that commonplace books do.

(I'm not even going to comment on the "since the onset of the Gutenberg revolution" part of that passage, which seems to suggest that authors only came to care about their works once they could be printed--because, you know, it's not like there were books before then, or anything--while at the same time showing no real understanding of how vexed the idea of "authorship" remained for quite a long while AFTER the advent of print.)

But the final paragraphs are the best part:
"When books are digitized," Kelly ominously promises, "reading becomes a community activity. . . . The universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world's only book."

Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity.

Wasn't the Renaissance man, in fact, a man of snippets? And as long as you choose the right snippets (and cite your sources, dammit, for all the students out there), aren't you demonstrating your exquisite taste--and, in fact, the very personal identity that Updike is so het up over?

Yeah. In sum: shut up, John Updike.


bdh said...

Clearly Updike has never heard of the commonplace book.

Dr. Virago said...

Nor has he heard of miscellanies. Or manuscripts, for that matter.


Shut up, Updike, indeed. Or better still -- take a few extension courses in medieval and early modern literature or the history of the book and *then* come back a give a speech, Updike.

Meanwhile, you rock, Flavia.

George H. Williams said...

Yeah, what is it about this topic that makes people continue to say such ridiculously ignorant things about the history of reading, writing, and publishing? And what would it take to reorient non-expert people's understanding of the issues surrounding this history and its relationship to the present?

Anonymous said...


Updike seems to subscribe to the McLuhanite view of print as the engine that liberated the human spirit in the Renaissance. One expects this, I guess, from a man with a big fat shelf full of royalty-drawing books and a big fat inflated self-opinion.

I suggest that to knock this pernicious notion (and maybe also some of JU's royalties)out of the laity's collective head there should be public burnings of some Marshall McLuhan books, preferably also featuring the burning of Updike in effigy.

Then again, I'm an early Americanist, so I always want to burn stuff--especially effigies. Doesn't necessarily solve anything, but it's fun.