S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 15 April 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 

Stop the Presses

 

[Jethro the Fish]

Before Johannes Gutenberg set the

stage for The Celestine Prophecy

and a million other testimonials

to the dubious virtues of

typography, there were only

30,000 books in all of Europe;

now there's more than three

times that number at your

neighborhood Barnes & Noble.

Wandering the aisles of such

establishments, lost amidst the

latest product from our

culture's great glut of

page-churners, one can't help

but feel hopelessly uninformed.

In a universe of perpetual

invention and pervasive media,

it's not just a feeling that

we're getting dumber and dumber.

Proportionately speaking, we

are.

 

Most of us accept our rapidly

accelerating knowledge deficit

as blithely as we accept our

budgetary one. Resisters,

however, dream of systems and

devices capable of organizing

and managing the world's vast

surpluses of information, so

that such resources might serve

individuals, rather than oppress

them. While Ted Nelson's plans

for a global hypertext library

seem to have passed from

technological longshot to rueful

remembrance, Bill Gates has

gotten a little farther with his

own version of a universal

knowledge device. Sure, the sort

of useful functionality he

describes in The Road Ahead is

nowhere to be found on MSN, but

we have a catchy corporate

slogan for when it does arrive -

Information at Your Fingertips.

 

[ A Logo]

Michael Hart has taken a more

modest approach with Project

Gutenberg - there's no

hypertext, no elaborate

filtering techniques or agent

capabilities, just plain ASCII

text files, available for free

to anyone with the patience to

read entire books on screen or

on double-spaced, unbound,

laser-printed pages. It's a

decidedly typographic approach

to universal knowledge, really

not that different from the

early-20th-century public

library. Except that even the

tiniest of those generally had

more than the 1,000 books that

Gutenberg volunteers have

managed to digitize in the

Project's quarter-century of

existence.

 

That modest progress belies

Hart's ambition for the next few

years, however; by the year

2001, he hopes to have 10,000

volumes in Project Gutenberg's

catalog. While this sounds like

great occupational therapy for a

high-minded

obsessive-compulsive, if Hart's

motivation for the project

derives from a true devotion to

literature, he would do well to

limit the Project to its current

1,000 items.

 

[Brave]

The people who reap the greatest

benefit from Project Gutenberg

are the volunteers who type in

entire books word by word; you

can't help but pay closer

attention to a book when you do

that. Beyond that, it's hard to

see the reason for increasing

the availability of books,

electronically or otherwise; the

average person already has easy

access to far more volumes than

he or she will ever read.

 

[Durer]

Indeed, ubiquity makes books even

easier to ignore. When books

were harder to produce and

distribute, and consequently

scarcer, they commanded

attention. The book was the

medium through which one age

passed its best ideas to the

next. That's all changed

radically in the last century,

as books evolved into

commodities as common as bread

or laundry detergent. When

Khomeini told his cadre of

cutthroat critics to go

Salman-fishing nine years ago,

who could understand the overly

sensitive despot's wrath? After

all, it was only a book.

 

That the "death of the book"

conceit remains as popular as it

does in the face of so much

contradictory evidence - last

year, Americans alone spent US$9

billion on books - testifies to

the marketing acumen of the book

publishing industry. Has there

ever been a longer "going out of

business" sale than the one

booksellers have been trumpeting

for the last 30 or so years of

allegedly declining literacy? If

such doomsday proclamations are

actually true, can't the book

hurry up and die then? What the

world of letters needs more than

Project Gutenberg is a merciless

gardener: Weed wisely, and with

the requisite ruthlessness, and

the books that remain might

reacquire a valence of

consequence.

 

But I don't mean to suggest that

it's only bad books that should

be spared the digital

persistence and universal

accessibility that Hart and

others would like to bestow on

them. When a good book goes out

of print, it makes for an even

greater cause for celebration:

In the current mass-media

landscape, where golden showers

are just a particularly warm

current of the mainstream, and

every zine publisher has a book

deal with a major publisher,

out-of-print books are one of

the best resources for

developing a unique cultural

perspective. People think too

much alike as it is. That we

don't all have equal access to

the same influences, and that

some books remain beyond the

reach of those who aren't

willing to do anything more than

navigate a few computer screens

to find them, is one of our

culture's few saving graces.

 

[Head]

Books have always offered concise

instruction to those in search

of a new perspective - the

troubled adolescent knows

there's no better user's guide

than Catcher in the Rye; the

chrysalid contrarian invariably

discovers Mencken. In time,

databases like Project Gutenberg

will offer features that

rationalize the slow, piecemeal

process of literary

self-invention. Such services

will offer a menu of popular

personas - the Wry

Existentialist, the Dionysian

He-Man. Pick one, and the

service will tell you exactly

which books in its database you

should read in order to

cultivate it. It's the sort of

development only the most

efficient mind could define as

progress; any true bibliophile

knows that the pursuit of

pretension is a much subtler art

than that.



courtesy of St. Huck
 
 
 

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