All culture is conversation. — Neil Postman
Culture is made up of what remains after everything else has been forgotten.
— Jean-Philippe de Tonnac
I’ve spent the last few years working on a book about the end of the Gutenberg Age and the lessons we can learn from our entry into it. (It awaits a publisher.) In my reading, I very quickly saw that I would not be demarking eras—in fact, I warn of the perils of periodization, the hubris of the “modern,” the noxious journalistic conceit of writing “the first draft of history.” Instead, I sought continua across eras, for that is where the lessons lie.
I came to see that from the dawn of movable type, books were in conversation with each other: Luther conversed with the Pope in their books (and bonfires of them); Erasmus and his friend More held an ongoing conversation through theirs. With its mechanization and industrialization — with the birth of mass media — print lost the art of conversation. Now, in a connected world, we are attempting in fits and failures to relearn how to hold a conversation with ourselves. There is a continuum.
Among the delights of my research are the moments when I find books that I fancy are, whether they intend it or not, in a conversation with each other. Sometime ago, I found connections about cognition in Alex Rosenberg’s How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories and David Weinberger’s Everyday Chaos: Technology, Complexity, and How We’re Thriving in a New World of Possibility. In another example, I constantly recommend to students that they read Charlton McIlwain’s Black Software with André Brock Jr.’s Distributed Blackness, for the first offers an oral history of the early attempts to create Black spaces online and the second is a sequel in time, analyzing the successful gathering of Black Twitter as a space for — in Brock’s delightful word choice — “jouissance.”
I just finished reading two new books by book historians I hold in the highest esteem and found connections between them.
Andrew Pettegree is the dean of book-history scholars. I have devoured many of his books — among them The Book in the Renaissance, The Invention of News, Brand Luther — and countless of his papers in the Brill series he edits and elsewhere. He and his colleague at the University of St. Andrews, Arthur der Weduwen, collaborated (for the third time) on a captivating new book, The Library: A Fragile History.
Matthew Kirschenbaum of the University of Maryland, another book historian, focuses on more contemporary topics. Aging nerd that I am, I loved his last book, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing. He has just written a new book, Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage.
I read these two books together. One could say that The Library is about the past and Bitstreams about the future. But no. Rather, between them they present a compelling continuum in their examinations of the processes of creating, editing, publishing (or today we might say sharing), curating, protecting, and losing what is written, said, or made.
The Library begins, of course, at the library of Alexandria. When Richard Nixon went to Alexandria, he asked to see the library, which is a punchline for a few reasons, one of which is that no one knows exactly where the library was. I was struck learning that scale was the Alexandrian library’s mission but also its curse, for the hundreds of thousands of papyrus scrolls collected there would have had to have been copied before crumbling every century or two. The more the library collected, the more impossible that would have become. “The sheer size of the Alexandrian library militated against its survival,” said Pettegree and der Weduwen. I’ve been thinking a lot about scale lately, about how mass became the mission of media with industrialization, about the benefit scale brings online (enabling more people to speak), and about the curse scale brings (curating and moderating — or, as some would wish, censoring — is an impossibility at scale). The pursuit of scale — and its perils — is not new; it is a continuum.
As The Library makes clear, the reflex to save books was not immediate, and when it began it was a pastime of the privileged. One of the earliest and greatest collectors was Columbus’ son, Hernando Colón. (See Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books.) Subscription libraries were a business model that would support much of publishing. When Benjamin Franklin and friends started their shared collection in 1727 it saved them money on their reading and established the Library Co. of Philadelphia. Public libraries followed and flourished, thanks in great measure to the support of Andrew Carnegie.
With mechanization — of presses, paper, and typesetting—books became so inexpensive that more could write them and anyone could buy them. That, though, frightened the elites — just as movable type had in its day and the internet does today: a continuum. For the masses could now read and, God forbid, learn and even speak. Pettegree and der Weduwen explore the moral panic brought on by the rise of fiction, the fear that it would corrupt the souls of especially women and children. Even to open the stacks to browsing was worrisome as surely readers without watchful librarians would gravitate toward dangerous tales. “Circulating libraries were denounced as purveyors of pornography and books of brain-rotting triviality.” Sound familiar?
The Library ends recounting wars against books: wars of banning and burning and wars that destroyed libraries, demonstrating just how fragile they have been. (On this topic, I also recommend last year’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge by Oxford Bodleian Librarian Richard Ovenden.)
As a bibliographer, Matthew Kirschenbaum seeks to discover, preserve, and study not just the product but the act of creation: the process. In Bitstreams, he begins by exploring the physical and digital archives of manuscripts of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The paper version was singed and almost destroyed in a fire in her home and so Kirschenbaum was permitted to view the remains on a screen. Also on screens, he delved into the contents of her outmoded plastic diskettes. That is how he reconstructs revealing moments of conversation between Morrison and her editor over critical choices of words. Next Kirschenbaum examines writing that was “born digital,” poetry written in Hypercard, and he finds that while the author’s words may be preserved, the choices and designs he made in fonts — the full experience of display — may be lost as machines and formats become obsolete. Many a bibliographer will argue that each copy of a book should be studied as a unique object rather than a copy for each one carries its own provenance and use and marks in the margins. (See Luther’s copy of Erasmus’ New Testament.) So, too, Kirschenbaum teaches that each bitstream — each representation of creation on different screens in different circumstances using different tools — is “never truly self-identical.”
The ultimate continuum I see in these books is about culture as conversation, to borrow from Neil Postman. For as a disciple of James Carey I see much of our world through the lens (the loudspeaker?) of conversation. Kirschenbaum writes about the processes of creation. Pettegree and der Weduwen write about the processes of selecting, saving, using, discarding, and destroying print in libraries. Together, they present an unbroken string from creator to reader, in the constant conversation of culture.
Libraries, then, can be as much about what is forgotten as what is remembered. In addition to everything else he does — which is awe-inspiring enough — Pettegree heads the Universal Short Title Catalogue, a grandly ambitious effort to create as complete a bibliography as possible of the first two centuries of print with movable type. This means tracking down not just books and artifacts in collections but also those that are lost to history, the ghost of their existence surviving only in references elsewhere or as lines in auction or estate catalogues. This struck me as a terribly depressing endeavor: finding that which cannot be found. But I was mistaken. When Pettegree and his USTC colleague der Weduwen presented their book in a conversation for the New York Public Library, I quoted Jean-Philippe de Tonnac (above) in a question, asking about the lessons they might recommend for the digital bibliographers of the future.
Pettegree answered that he and the USTC pay special attention to the “ugly ducklings” of print, the items that were so well-used in their day that they were worn to bits or that were so everyday that they were not valued enough to be preserved. For that tells us much about the choices that culture makes and the choices that make culture. “[N]o society has ever been satisfied with the collections inherited from previous generations,” Pettegree and der Weduwen write, adding that what they chronicle in their book “is not so much the apparently wanton destruction of beautiful artifacts so lamented by previous studies of library history, but neglect and redundancy, as books and collections that represented the values and interests of one generation fail to speak to the one that follows.”
The great and founding book historian Elizabeth Eisenstein (who along with Thomas Pettitt of Gutenberg Parenthesis fame and Pettegree himself inspired me to embark on my book project) was attacked by some critics — some out of sexism and jealousy, I think — for focusing too much on the fixity of print. They accuse her of not recognizing how books, especially in the early days of incunabula, were riddled with error, of unsure provenance, and changed often. They say that she projected latter-day views of print on the past. I say the critics are wrong. Eisenstein frequently addressed print’s malleable nature. In a conversation I had with her, she did boast on Gutenberg’s behalf that his Bible had already lasted longer than any digital format would, and she was right. Yet as Kirschenbaum argues, digital bitstreams can be resurrected: “[T]he immolated edges of a manuscript are gone forever, carbonized and vaporized in a flash; the bitstream, if fixity and integrity are maintained, awaits only the imposition of the appropriate formal regimen to cauterize its internal cascade of relational disarray and rememory its pixels all anew.”
We risk projecting our contemporary expectations of print’s fixity not only on early publishing but on the early internet, expecting that since digits are all but free everything can and should be saved. No. Culture is conversation and some conversation is meant to disappear in the sky like the hot air it is; some is worth remembering and repeating, teaching and learning, copying and remixing. The Library and Bitstreams make clear that observing what society and its institutions choose to remember will tell us much about what they value.
In a recent post, I discussed the case of Niccolò Perotti, who made what is believed to be the first call for censorship of print in 1470, beseeching the Pope to appoint learned censors to judge and fix printers’ formes before they were duplicated. What he was really calling for was not censoring at all but instead editing; he foresaw the need for the institutions of editor, publisher, and librarian to assure quality and authority in print.
The institutions created for the age of print are so far inadequate to the networked world with its abundance of wonderful conversation. We should not expect the net to be edited any more than we should expect a barroom argument to be. We cannot expect — though many do — Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to be cleaned and polished like a slick magazine. We should understand the net for what it is: conversation, process, sometimes a library, sometimes a stream of bits disappearing into the past.
What institutions do we need then? That is what leads me to teach this course alongside Doug Rushkoff, in hopes that students might tackle such questions as Pettegree, der Weduwen, and Kirschenbaum (and Rosenberg and Weinberger, and McIlwain and Brock) inspire. How do we find what’s worth hearing? What editing and moderation of the public conversation should we wish for, demand, or permit? What could digital librarianship accomplish? What will we save so it may be used, studied, and built upon in the future? How do we rethink our models of content, product, and property and our laws of copyright to support collaborative creation? (See my proposal for creditright.)
Kirschenbaum begins Bitstreams asking this lovely question: “What is textual scholarship when the ‘text’ of our everyday speech is a transitive verb as often as it is a noun?” At the end he wisely declares: “[A]ll the data dumps in the world — 365 days of diffs — won’t get us any closer to total recall. The future of digital literary heritage will be as hit and miss, as luck dependent, as fragile, contingent, and (yet) wondrously replete as that of books and manuscripts.”