For What Was Gained and What Was Lost
My blog title comes from an anti-Vietnam War song by Eric Andersen. It's a pretty common phrase, but applied to the loss of an 18-year-old, a close friend, America's innocence, etc. it still resonates powerfully for me.
Those who care about books, reading, etc., have been ruminating on, obsessing, blogging, worrying, celebrating, discussing … what it means to move away from a print-only world. For some, who love physical books only, it feels like a death. For some … well, not to beat this death, but for them it feels like a turning point not unlike what we experienced (for good or bad) with Vietnam. And for some, it's good riddance to those heavy objects.
We're changed and we ain't going back.
Me? I read books on my iPhone, but love the smell of ink. I gave away 200 books to the Boston Public Library before moving back to New York and still have, well, many.
What brought all this to mind was a couple of recent articles in The New York Times. As I said, we've all had those conversations about what's different, but these pieces focused on a couple of things I found interesting. And they both relate to legacy, for lack of a better term.
The first discusses marginalia. This is the practice, causing feelings of either horror or admiration in book owners, of making notes in the margins of books. As Dirk Johnson, the author of the article writes: "It is a rich literary pastime, sometimes regarded as a tool of literary archaeology, but it has an uncertain fate in a digitalized world."
What spurred his article is an upcoming symposium, "Other People's Books: Association Copies and the Stories They Tell." There will be 52 essays on books, once owned or annotated by the authors and how that enhances the reading experience for those that pick up that book later. A book that Lincoln read, with his comments scribbled in the margins, makes for a different reading experience—emotionally and intellectually.
Sure, all of the e-readers allow for annotation but, clearly, it's a different experience. Holding a book that Lincoln or Twain held and seeing their comments is just … different. And that will be different than seeing an electronic file annotated by President Obama or Philip Roth.
One specific mention in the article is of a copy of "The Federalist" that was once owned by Thomas Jefferson. He not only wrote his initials in the book, but "those of the founding fathers alongside their essays, which had originally been published anonymously."
Maybe it's just me, but I think that's REALLY cool.
Which leads us, nicely to the second article. A literary detective uncovered a reassure trove of books that Thomas Jefferson collected and read before he died. And, yes, Jefferson, did put marginalia in his books—his initials, he corrected typos, made comments, etc. This new collection is now being combed for his comments.
Sam Roberts' article mentions that Jefferson was our most bibliophilic president. Sure, times were different then, but it made me think of that in a couple of ways regarding modern-day presidents.
Even putting aside print vs. electronic, how will they stack up vs. Jefferson? Has George Bush read a book that did not have pictures? Did Bill Clinton have an extensive porn collection? And, based on the times they lived in, how will the content of a 21st- century president's library differ from that of Thomas Jefferson's?
And then there is that print vs. electronic question. Will current and future presidents even have a physical library for historians to comb over? No doubt future ex-presidents will still raise money and build big marble monuments to themselves, but will there be printed books in that building?
Every innovation brings about wondrous and awful changes. Sometimes it's worth taking a moment and thinking about what was gained and what was lost.
He is currently Production Director for Teachers College Press. Previously, he was Vice President, Global Content and Media Production for Cengage Learning. Prior to that he was Vice President of Production and Manufacturing for Oxford University Press, Pearson/Prentice Hall, Worth Publishers and HarperCollins.
In those capacities, he has been a leader in managing process and content for delivery in as many ways possible.