By JAMES GLEICK
I GOT a real thrill in December 1999 in the Reading Room of the Morgan Library in New York when the librarian, Sylvie Merian, brought me, after I had completed an application with a letter of reference and a photo ID, the first, oldest notebook of Isaac Newton. First I was required to study a microfilm version. There followed a certain amount of appropriate pomp. The notebook was lifted from a blue cloth drop-spine box and laid on a special padded stand. I was struck by how impossibly tiny it was — 58 leaves bound in vellum, just 2 3/4 inches wide, half the size I would have guessed from the enlarged microfilm images. There was his name, “Isacus Newton,” proudly inscribed by the 17-year-old with his quill, and the date, 1659.
“He filled the pages with meticulous script, the letters and numerals often less than one-sixteenth of an inch high,” I wrote in my book “Isaac Newton” a few years later. “He began at both ends and worked toward the middle.”
Apparently historians know the feeling well — the exhilaration that comes from handling the venerable original. It’s a contact high. In this time of digitization, it is said to be endangered. The Morgan Notebook of Isaac Newton is online now (thanks to the Newton Project at the University of Sussex). You can surf it.
The raw material of history appears to be heading for the cloud. What once was hard is now easy. What was slow is now fast.
Is this a case of “be careful what you wish for”?
Last month the British Library announced a project with Google to digitize 40 million pages of books, pamphlets and periodicals dating to the French Revolution. The European Digital Library, Europeana.eu, well surpassed its initial goal of 10 million “objects” last year, including a Bulgarian parchment manuscript from 1221 and the Rok runestone from Sweden, circa 800, which will save you trips to, respectively, the St. Cyril and St. Methodius National Library in Sofia and a church in Ostergotland.
Reporting to the European Union in Brussels, the Comité des Sages (sounds better than “Reflection Group”) urged in January that essentially everything — all the out-of-copyright cultural heritage of all the member states — should be digitized and made freely available online. It put the cost at approximately $140 billion and called this vision “The New Renaissance.”
Inevitably comes the backlash. Where some see enrichment, others see impoverishment. Tristram Hunt, an English historian and member of Parliament, complained in The Observer this month that “techno-enthusiasm” threatens to cheapen scholarship. “When everything is downloadable, the mystery of history can be lost,” he wrote. “It is only with MS in hand that the real meaning of the text becomes apparent: its rhythms and cadences, the relationship of image to word, the passion of the argument or cold logic of the case.”
I’m not buying this. I think it’s sentimentalism, and even fetishization. It’s related to the fancy that what one loves about books is the grain of paper and the scent of glue.
Some of the qualms about digital research reflect a feeling that anything obtained too easily loses its value. What we work for, we better appreciate. If an amateur can be beamed to the top of Mount Everest, will the view be as magnificent as for someone who has accomplished the climb? Maybe not, because magnificence is subjective. But it’s the same view.
Another worry is the loss of serendipity — as Mr. Hunt says, “the scholar’s eternal hope that something will catch his eye.” When you open a book Newton once owned, which you can do (by appointment) in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, you may see notes he scribbled in the margins. But marginalia are being digitized, too. And I find that online discovery leads to unexpected twists and turns of research at least as often as the same time spent in archives.
“New Renaissance” may be a bit of hype, but a profound transformation lies ahead for the practice of history. Europeans seem to have taken the lead in creating digital showcases; maybe they just have more history to work with than Americans do. One brilliant new resource among many is the London Lives project: 240,000 manuscript and printed pages dating to 1690, focusing on the poor, including parish archives, records from workhouses and hospitals, and trial proceedings from the Old Bailey.
Storehouses like these, open to anyone, will surely inspire new scholarship. They enrich cyberspace, particularly because without them the online perspective is so foreshortened, so locked into the present day. Not that historians should retire to their computer terminals; the sights and smells of history, where we can still find them, are to be cherished. But the artifact is hardly a clear window onto the past; a window, yes, clouded and smudged like all the rest.
It’s a mistake to deprecate digital images just because they are suddenly everywhere, reproduced so effortlessly. We’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. You can be the sole owner of a Jackson Pollock or a Blue Mauritius but not of a piece of information — not for long, anyway. Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.
Oddly, for collectors of antiquities, the pricing of informational relics seems undiminished by cheap reproduction — maybe just the opposite. In a Sotheby’s auction three years ago, Magna Carta fetched a record $21 million. To be exact, the venerable item was a copy of Magna Carta, made 82 years after the first version was written and sealed at Runnymede. Why is this tattered parchment valuable? Magical thinking. It is a talisman. The precious item is a trick of the eye. The real Magna Carta, the great charter of human rights and liberty, is available free online, where it is safely preserved. It cannot be lost or destroyed.
An object like this — a talisman — is like the coffin at a funeral. It deserves to be honored, but the soul has moved on.
By NICK BILTON
At the end of the week, I’ll be moving west and writing about technology from The New York Times’s San Francisco bureau.
I’ve lived in New York City for 15 years, and over that time have amassed a lot of stuff. My personal belongings are strewn about the city, piled up in my apartment, stuffed into drawers at my office and stacked in a storage space in Brooklyn.
When it came time to pack for the big move, I was forced to cull what I could afford to send out to San Francisco from what I would have to throw away or give to friends. Most decisions were pretty simple; pots and pans, my bicycle and my Apple iPad would all make the trip. Old and now useless electronics and large furniture would stay.
But there was one thing (actually, many of one thing) that I couldn’t decide what to do about — my print books.
Although I love my print books, e-readers, in one form or another, have become my primary reading device over the last few years. I barely touch my print books, although they are still beautiful and important to me. But they sit on my bookshelf as a decorative and intellectual art form.
I’ve always been a voracious reader, often buying 50 or so books a year, so before I joined the clan of e-reading New Yorkers, I had amassed hundreds of paperback and hardback books.
As I packed for the move, I questioned whether it made financial sense to ship my several hundred books across the country, and more important, if I went through the trouble of doing this, what was the point when they would only sit untouched in a different city, just as they have for so many years in New York?
During a work meeting at The Times, I began talking about my move to San Francisco, and which of my personal belongings would make the trip. When I voiced my reluctance to ship my books, one of my editors, horror-stricken, said: “You have to take your books with you! I mean, they are books. They are so important!”
The book lover in me didn’t disagree, but the practical side of me did. I responded: “What’s the point if I’m not going to use them? I have digital versions now on my Kindle.” I also asked, “If I was talking about throwing away my CD or DVD collection, no one would bat an eyelid.”
As with most discussions that center on the topic of choosing new technology over its analog counterpart, everyone in the room had a passionate opinion about what to do with my books. In discussions with others, friends who work in technology and have fully adopted a digital life all seem to think they should simply be given away or thrown out; those on the other side of the street fervently disagree.
In the end, I decided to leave 80 percent of the books behind, donating them to bookstores and even throwing some old, tattered volumes in the garbage. I still feel guilty about it, but I also feel vindicated by the practicality of my actions.
So although there are a few important print books that will make the trip, most will end up on someone else’s bookshelf, until they are forced to make the same decision too.
It was probably a coincidence, but on one Sunday in July, two New York Times luminaries wrote columns complaining about books. Bill Keller, the outgoing executive editor, had a piece in the magazine headlined "Let's Ban Books, or at Least Stop Writing Them." In the Sunday business section, Bryan Burroughs, a regular reviewer and himself the author of multiple bestsellers, took on the preponderance of business books in an essay called "Compelling Tales, Rarely Told Well."
Meanwhile, UNESCO's list of "new titles and editions" of books published in the United States for 2009 totaled 288,355, a number that has doubtless increased since then, as books long out of print are revived in digital versions. BookStats 2011,the annual comprehensive report just released by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, concluded that book sales, in terms of revenues and copies sold, have steadily increased in the period of 2008-2010. Overall, the report supports the belief that publishing is on an upswing, contrary to the widely held but incorrect assumption that competition from other forms of media was diminishing the venerable book world. In the press release accompanying the report, Dominique Raccah, CEO of SourceBooks and chair of the committee that did the survey, said: "The BookStats study indicates that the publishing industry is healthy and growing during a time of unprecedented change... Publishers in every sector of our business have made significant investments in content and technology to better serve their audiences' needs and those efforts seem to correlate with the results we're seeing."
So there you have the contradiction in perspectives: Keller's piece was especially cranky, and I'm guessing was intended to be wittier than it turned out to be. Burroughs, whose Barbarians at the Gates set a standard for business narratives, summarized his view this way: "Of the sprawling mass of books that spill across my desk, far too many just aren't very good... some are too technical, some not technical enough. Some topics are hopeless." Nonetheless, books are pouring forth -- and, in the midst of the digital surge, are actually selling in aggregate better than ever.
In fact, among the various forms of information and entertainment, books are distinctive because there are so many of them. Every movie, television program, news organization, and the top tiers of websites combined represent a relatively small number compared to the books being published. Books do fall into categories, such as fiction, nonfiction, and textbooks, and subcategories like politics, economics, history, romance, science-fiction and so on; yet, most books have to be considered separate entities with their own strategy for reaching an audience.
I actually sympathize with Keller's sense that too many reporters think they should be writing books instead of devoting their energies to the news. Money is obviously an incentive. The dream of reporters is that a big advance followed by a smash bestseller is the key to a successful career in journalism, a field that, in recent years, has been going through contraction and other agonies. Unfortunately, most books fall short of their authors' fantasies for them. A major magazine piece or substantial news takeout is almost certain to reach a larger audience than a book on the same subject. Great news stories -- take the Bernard Madoff Ponzi saga, for example -- produce a shelf of books that tend to sell less well than the authors and publishers had hoped. Why? Partly because the story was so thoroughly covered as it unfolded, and partly because -- let's face it -- none (and I read sections of most them) penetrated much beyond what we knew when we turned the first page.
Keller, who acknowledges that he entered two book contracts that he never fulfilled, clearly found it a nuisance to give book leaves to reporters:
We indulge our writers because we want the talent happy and because a little of their prestige accrues to The Times. But we do so at a cost. Books mean writers who are absent or distracted from daily journalism, writers who have to be replaced when they leave their reporting beats and landed somewhere when they return. There is the tricky relationship between what they unearth for their books and what goes into the paper. There is the awkwardness of reviewing books by colleagues -- and the greater awkwardness of not reviewing them. There is the resentment of those left behind to take up the slack, especially where fat advances have been paid.
Burroughs' criticism is different, but equally pointed: "For one thing, these books aren't easy to create... It's the corporate world's zeal for secrecy -- and the tendency of companies to avoid publicity they can't control -- that makes these tales tough to find and even tougher to tell."
I guess it has to be considered a plus for publishing that so many people want to write books and that, based on the BookStats results, more people are buying them. There is no way to limit the output of books. But the sense that there may be too many of them is a message to authors, agents, and publishers that they would do well to exercise judgment in choosing which books actually deserve to be written and supported. At the moment, however, the process is moving in the other direction: self-publishing as a business is booming, and Amazon, Apple, and Google, with their various devices and imprints, seem to be lowering the entry bar because these corporate behemoths see new publishing ventures as a source of revenue, pretty much regardless of quality.
Are there too many books? Ultimately, that is an unreasonable question, because the process of winnowing them is so unappealing. But I'll agree with Keller and Burroughs that, among the many hundreds of thousands of books released each year, the quality of the few tends to be overwhelmed by the dross of many.