Wednesday, August 03, 2011

"Do I have to buy the book?"

[Slide #1: The Turbot]

We talk of food for the mind, as of food for the body: now a good book contains such food inexhaustibly; it is a provision for life, and for the best part of us; yet how long most people would look at the best book before they would give the price of a large turbot for it?

[I remember, fondly, the bookstore in Washington, DC which had that last phrase printed on its shopping bags and bookmarks]

the very cheapness of literature is making even wise people forget that if a book is worth reading, it is worth buying. No book is worth anything which is not worth much; nor is it serviceable, until it has been read, and re-read, and loved, and loved again; and marked, so that you can refer to the passages you want in it, as a soldier can seize the weapon he needs in an armoury, or a housewife bring the spice she needs from her store.

–Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies (Library Edition, Vol. XVIII, p. 85)
I re-read these lines today from my own copy of the Library Edition, which cost me many hours of shopping and a large number of dollars. I find that this is the latest of the Edition's 39 volumes of which Lancaster University's Ruskin Library and Research Centre has placed extraordinarily careful, clean, and readable PDF scans online. I could, I suppose, have downloaded these books more or less for free, just as this morning I downloaded texts by Rossetti, Robert Buchanan, and Swinburne, and last week I downloaded (courtesy of Google Books) a PDF of Allen Upwards The New Word.

I say "more or less for free," because nothing is got for nothing, after all: I paid for my computer, & I pay for internet access. Someone paid for those books, poems, & articles to be scanned or transcribed & uploaded to the internet; someone is paying the broadband bills for Jerry McGann's extraordinary Rossetti Archive, just as someone is paying the bills for Lancaster U's Ruskin treasures. But psychologically speaking, there's an immense difference between one's shelling out $65 for a first edition of Upward's New Word (or $10 for a print-on-demand paperback) and downloading the text for "free."

I have long ago realized that I'm far too old (chronologically, psychologically) to count myself among those for whom the experience of consuming texts is primarily a matter of interacting with a screen of some sort. That's okay: the transition from the physical page, which the futurists ten years ago were predicting would be complete sometime last decade, will probably take several generations. It's not something that worries me, or even occupies me much. But I am struck by the implications of Ruskin's economizing – the turbot and the book. (I don't often buy whole fish, but I know that I would think twice, hard, before spending on a book what we spent last night feeding the family at a mediocre restaurant.)

Suppose that the interface with the electronic text were improved so that it no longer irritated me; suppose that I could interact with it as I do with a "real" book – scribble in its margins with a stylus rather than a keyboard, circle and underline passages at will. Suppose that my students could do this, and we spent our class time crouching over Nooks & Kindles & iPads, rather than tatty, dog-eared books and internet printouts (yes, I insist) as we do now?

Perhaps the experience would be more or less the same. But one crucial element would have changed: the immediate investment in the book-object. It's been displaced. No longer does one have to go to the campus store (or BookSmart across the street, or for that matter Amazon or, search out the object, and pay for it. Instead, one clicks & it's downloaded – ideally, for free. But the investment has only been shifted, not obliterated. We're no longer aware of the economic networks that have produced the book, from the long-expired royalty payments to the now-dead author, to the labor expended on editing, to the scanning or transcribing and html coding. The payment for the book becomes a society-wide one, rather than a personal one – and as we've seen in its most extreme form with the Tea Party movement, in America at least we're liable to consider any social obligations to be arrant left-wing fantasies. (As Americans, we owe nothing but personally incurred debts.)

On the most basic level, I feel more investment in a book-object in which I have invested actual money. I feel obligated to read it, at the very least. Call me a coelacanth; or some fossilized turbot.