Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

The Traveling Library

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

The Traveling Library

Article excerpt

Speculating recently about the future of the iPhone, Malcolm Gladwell wrote that "the only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws." No laws, then, just cautions of every kind and from all quarters.

Just this morning, in fact, an article about Amazon's Kindle e-book reader simultaneously chills, amuses, and baffles this student of textual technology. It seems that the mother company remotely deleted certain novels from the Kindles of readers who'd bought them. The rights to the disputed work are questionable, so no doubt Amazon made the right move.

Still, how'd they do that? Random House can't come into my house and grab all my Faulkners, but apparently Amazon can hoover the books it sold me right out of my portable e-book reader. Crazy people have always thought the government can watch them through their TV screens; if Amazon's long-distance invasion of private domains isn't that drastic, it's still unsettling. For that reason, it's especially appropriate that the two texts Amazon pulled are two classic depictions of totalitarianism, 1984 and Animal Farm.

I was in my fifties when the first reports of e-book research started to appear. On a broad scale, news about nascent technology tends to be greeted with terror that shades into indifference, acceptance, and even enthusiasm. For example, people were afraid of the first telephones, certain that they'd be shocked if they picked up the receiver during a rainstorm. And if you're my age or older, you might remember being depressed about the advent of computers. They're expensive! you thought. They're complicated! And now you use one every day; indeed, you can't imagine life without it.

With e-books, it was the other way around for me. My first reaction was delirious joy, for reasons I'll explain below. And then I began to turn suspicious, even before Amazon's remote recall of books buyers thought were theirs. Now I'm somewhere between elation and distrust, though certainly I'm ready for the e-book. I'd better be, because it's on its way. And when it arrives, not merely in the hands of the early adapters but in the mass market as well, it'll be a better product if its manufacturers take the suggestions I'll offer toward the end of this essay.

In the meantime, I'll begin at the beginning and show how one book lover's obsessions and anxieties all but willed the ebook into existence.

In 1998, I left Tallahassee for Paris for one reason: to have more time to read. I figured if you start young and read a book a week and live to be eighty-five or so, you'd read about four thousand books total, which isn't that many. And since by then I'd read probably half the books I would ever read, I figured Fd better get busy.

One day when I was in the American Library on the Rue Général Camou, I picked up a biography of Bernard Berenson that had caught my eye because of its subtitle, The Making of a Connoisseur. When Berenson was in his midtwenties, he dictated to the young woman who later became his wife a list of the writers he'd read before he was nineteen: "Marryat, Horatio Alger, Oliver Optic . . . James, Thackeray, Dickens (always with great reluctance) . . . Swift, Fielding (didn't like), Sterne, Smollett, Elizabethan dramatists, Lamb, Addison (always loved) . . . Walt Whitman (didn't like) . . . Shakespeare, Milton (preferred him) . . . Gods: Pater, Arnold, Browning." Now what thrilled me about Berenson's list was not so much the names as all the little tags- "didn't like," "always loved," "gods," and so on - so that what you get is a picture of a mind in motion and not just a list of books that would be good for you.

The problem with Berenson, though, is that he preferred Milton to Shakespeare, didn't like Fielding - didn't like Whitman! Why would I read Marryat and Oliver Optic on the advice of someone who didn't like Walt Whitman? …

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