Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Monday, June 05, 2006

CROSSROADS COMMENT -- Golden or Gilded?


Kevin Kelly (“Scan This Book!,” _NYT Magazine_ , May 14, 2006) has seen the future and it is Golden!

But the future, at least in the visions of techno-futurists, is almost always bright with promise. The sun rising on a new day; night shadows slowly engulfing the old.

What Kelly sees coming over the horizon this time is The Universal Library. Here’s his "this is high-tech," we can do anything, vision:

“The dream is an old one: to have in one place all knowledge, past and present. All books, all documents, all conceptual works, in all languages. . . . The great library at Alexandria, constructed around 300 B.C., was designed to hold all the scrolls circulating in the known world. . . . Since then, the constant expansion of information has overwhelmed our capacity to contain it. For 2,000 years, the universal library, together with other perennial longings like invisibility cloaks, antigravity shoes and paperless offices, has been a mythical dream that kept receding further into the infinite future.

“Until now.”

I’ll say this for Kelly’s technology, it can count the paragraphs in his essay in a blink. A “Properties” search counts sixty-five. Place your cursor on any one of these and chances are you will find two points endlessly turning base metal into gold. The two are that books between covers are inert objects, they are only “copies” that “don’t count any more” and the second, equally clueless point, “search” equals creativity.

Trying not to sound like some grump scribe copyist who lived down the street when Johnny Gutenberg started clicking movable type into rows, it has to be noted that “search” is what is more commonly called research by those who write books. And no matter how tricked out the “search” feature may be, when the dross, dregs and dreams your drift net catches is “linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted," (big breath now, plunge on into the bright sunlight) “bookmarked, translated, enlivened, . . . sewn together,” it still adds up to research and only research, not creativity. And that “sewn together” that causes Kelly to jump up and down like a kid at her first rock concert, doesn’t that sound a lot like what others call a “scissors and paste” job? You know, that Frankenstein genre that gives high school term papers a special flair.

But Kelly is betting on the winning side if books are truly in a struggle with screens. Television sealed this outcome even before Steve and Bill started puttering around in their now mythic garages. I live in Terre Haute, Indiana, and though this is “The Crossroads of America,” my sample size is small, so when I ask every person I know who is computer savvy if she or he has ever read an entire book on-line, you know, cover-to-cover, can’t-put- it- down kind of reading, I have yet to receive an affirmative response. However, these same people are giving mucho face time to the screens in their lives. Plenty is happening on those screens. Most of it on the surface.

Maybe the Kevin Kelly future isn’t Golden. Maybe it’s Gilded.
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On the decline of reading in the U. S. of A. and our ineffectual response see:

"Reading at Risk" --NEA Report DOA

Libraries On-Line Getting Out of Line

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