After a decade-long legal battle, Google Books has just won the right to continue scanning the world books into digital form. On the occasion of this ruling, Jonathan Sturgeon reviews The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso for Flavorwire. Calasso has much to say about the digitization of books, most of it bad. Among other things, Calasso predicts that it will spell the end of the publisher as someone who gives the books they release a coherent and compelling identity. Here's an excerpt from Sturgeon's review:
For Calasso, the problem with Google Books is not that it is an assault on the book itself. “The book has already encountered difficult times and has always endured,” he writes. “No one, after all wishes it much harm. At worst, there’s an attempt to treat it like an endangered species, to be corralled in a large natural park.” It is rather that the project of “universal digitization” was from the beginning an assault on the culture of the book, on the way that books are used. On this he is forceful:
[A] fairly rigorous attempt is being made to get rid of a whole way of knowledge that is closely connected to the use of the book. More precisely, to get rid of a certain way of relating to the unknown. Here everything becomes harder and more risky. But why should the book have these powers? Why does the new digital sensibility find it so irritating, almost offensive as an object?...
Calasso is skeptical about the value of stripping millions of books of their covers in order to scan and “weave” them into culture through linking and tagging. (“And what if that book had wanted to unweave itself from everything?” he asks.) And he’s convincing on one point that is often lost in discussions of digitization: it’s the reduction of content to relatively depthless links and connections that is dangerous and strange. The creation of one single book out of all the books in the world is, in other words, a way of steamrolling and destroying their ability to form connections from isolation, a way of flattening them beyond the flatness of the page.
There is a difference, then, if you take Calasso’s point, between the intersubjective knowledge accrued through reading books and the global, liquid film of information promised by universal digitization. Still, no matter which side you come down on in the debate over Google Books, it should be obvious that what Calasso calls “the obliteration of publisher identity” is the logical extension of the project. If what Calasso says is true of the publisher’s identity — that it is a matter of form, of publishing singular books as if each were a chapter in a great book — it becomes obvious that the automated “weaving,” the cross-linking of books into a single mass of text, threatens the art of the publisher. If all books become one book, what will be the source of a publisher’s identity? Nothing, really, except their success on the market.
Image: Google engineer builds $1,500 page-turning scanner out of sheet metal and a vacuum. Via The Verge.