a kaddish for the printed word

If I grade one more paper tonight, I think I will scream! the papers...

Problem is — I have another 4.5 years worth of papers to grade, and I won’t scream. I never have screamed. I’ll kvetch. I’ll pull my hair. I’ll eat chocolate. I’ll complain a lot. And I’ll look for something positive to say about them. And there will be something good to say.

What’s positive?

First of all, they’re on paper.

Not that my students want to submit their work on paper. After all, if you’re just downloading shit, why not transmit it electronically as well? Why use good trees for this?

Okay, to be fair: I’ve read 2.5 good papers so far in the past week. So that’s 2.5 out of 38. And that’s just one class. And it took that long because I’ve been sick all week. Makes them all the harder to read. They hurt my kishkes.

But I didn’t sit down to write about the demise of good writing. I actually wanted to say a word about the demise of writing and printing on paper. After all, what I’m writing right now doesn’t warrant being written on paper. The question is, what does?

I can feel it happening. It’s been creeping up slowly. Like vegetarianism. Like menopause. Like death. It started when one colleague began casually whipping out his iPad during our Study Group, and showing me that he had all the reading on PDFs and kindle formats. And my other colleague whipped out his iPhone, with the entire Talmud right there between his thumbs. We were sitting in my Library. Surrounded by paper. Paper in Victorian mahogany bookcases with glass doors. Protecting all that paper. Talmud on iPhone! Isn’t that a sin or something? Or is it a mechiyah?

And now I look at my treasured collection, and what do I see? A fire hazard. An ecological genocide. A shanda.

I bought a book yesterday. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

And now I’m thinking, is this book good enough to deserve the paper it’s written on? Maybe only really good books should have the honor of real live paper? And who would it be who determines that?

And then I think of the end of Lucifer’s Hammer. When the diabetic nerdy astro-physicist, Dan Forester, has carefully buried his most treasured books as ‘the world is coming to an end’ — and it’s implied that it’s his self-sacrificing actions that will lead to the rebuilding of civilization. (It is also implied that civilization is worth rebuilding, even if it’s more romantic to think otherwise).

If you buried a kindle (or iPad or iPhone or iPod, or iBook) in the ground, after the disruption and destruction of all electronic communication, would any information at all have been preserved? Cloud technology begins to sound like a terrible idea from this perspective. Would all of Google, Wikipedia, JSTOR, AnthroSource still be — well, they’d all be gone, right? And I don’t think I’d mourn the loss of online sources at all.

I’m sick of too much undigested information. I sure as hell am sick of download. Too much easy access to any superficial fact — that still requires analysis, but isn’t getting it.

Remember the slow assimilation of hard found resources… The worldwide search for 19th century journals… Piecing the puzzle together bit by bit… all gives you the time to think, really think, aboutmeaning. And when we scour the earth for that treasured manuscript, or missing folio — we meet people, and we talk to them. And they have another bit of the puzzle — and we collaborate. We fall in love in the Archives. We’re curled up on the floor of the Stacks. We’re intoxicated by the back corridors of used book stores. Curled up in a comfy armchair in a cozy incandescent library, with a fire going in the fireplace, and the rain pouring outside, and it’s getting dark out… Maybe you’re too young to remember that …

Sorry. Sorry. I got a little over wrought there. Way too schmaltzy for words.

I mean, we could just sit home and download, right? And we can think we’ve found everything there is to know because we’ve Googled it. Wikipediated it. I mean, if it’s only on paper, does it even count?

The paper that got me so pissed off considered something called ‘Brainy Quotes’ to be ‘research.’

Throw a quote in here and there — professors like that shit, don’t they? I’ve heard that more than once. To my face. And with a smile.

Okay. Yeah, I know — I’m spewing here. Conflating things.

This was gonna be a nice quiet post on the question of whether to spend hundreds of dollars (which will be equated with pre-Christmas dollars spent boosting the economy) on the purchase of an iPad — and never ever ever again purchasing another book. Or whether to forego the currently coveted contrivance, and stick to my love of paper and binding. But reading student papers all day long for the past few days has made me reconsider the value of the printed word altogether.

My colleague says he’s still trying to figure out how to comfortably curl up with his iPad in bed at night to read. That a real live book still outperforms in bed.

I take this very seriously.

And how do kitties feel about electronics in bed? At present, Vlad waits patiently until the book is in place on the pillow before he climbs up and sits on it. Would Vladdie be equally comfortable on a kindle?

Here’s what I’ve come to:

— I’m sick of reading papers.

— I’m still quite happy reading paper books.

— Somebody had damned well better have saved all the books in the world for when the electronics all go down.

— Only the finest of reading materials will do for kitty and human nocturnal satisfaction.

Conclusion: I get to keep the 500 bucks that I don’t have for an iPad, and go out and buy just another book or two — for tonight…

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.
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10 Responses to a kaddish for the printed word

  1. erin says:

    Your collaborator here is also still trying to figure out how to hold the iPad comfortably while reading in bed in a pile of cats.

    So far I’ve concluded that it’s not as comfortable as a lightweight paperback, but it’s preferable to a heavy hardcover, and it’s way preferable to a 1200p. softcover Tale of [expletive deleted] Genji. It also has the advantage of providing its own light, so that I can spend my nocturnal insomnial hours reading without turning on a light that would bother my long-suffering wife.

    I also like that I can take innumerable books with me on a trip at the luggage penalty of one hardcover.

    Obsolescence of digital information is a serious issue. We’ve already lost invaluable archives to time; for example, much of the treasure trove of information from the early NASA years is lost or will be lost soon because they no longer have equipment to read the tapes, etc.

    Every time I upgrade my hardware or software, I have to take care that I also update the data I care about—which means moving my writing out of obsolete writing programs, and so forth. I also have to be sure to transfer data from outdated media to the media that aren’t outdated yet. Since high school I’ve been transferring stuff from cassette to mag tape to 8 inch floppy to 5.25 inch floppy to 3.5 inch floppy to Syquest cartridge to Jaz cartridge to CD-ROM to DVD-ROM to external hard drives… So far. I try to stay on top of this, but I have already lost a lot. I hope it was the stuff that needed to be lost.

    Meanwhile, journals and other embarrassing artifacts of my past live on in their humble paper forms. Some of them smell faintly of cat pee, reminders of the turf wars waged long ago by our beloved Norton and his one-time foster brother Dmitri, also much beloved—may they both rest in peace.

  2. mira says:

    Try an empirical test. Download Genji and try a night (or week) of each — the book, and the iPad version. I guess it would have to be the same translation and edition, which is unfortunate. In comparing the translations, I still prefer Arthur Waley’s — but I also prefer his ancient Chinese translations, too. Yes, his Genji is even longer than the other translations, but it flows —it’s visual— I can see the fall of sakura blossoms. I can hear the woosh of Lady Murasaki’s brush and she writes. I can feel Heian Dynasty Kyoto. Smell it. And agree with Waley, that visiting contemporary Kyoto would just ruin it…

    The luggage argument is valid, however. Still resisting (as with everything else).

    • erin says:

      Say! This is actually a doable experiment, except that it doesn’t get me any closer to Waley.

      I have the softcover Tyler, which I dropped almost $40 on. I can drop $13 more for the Tyler iPad version, or Suyematz Kenchio’s translation (Vigo, 2010) for $4 for iPad, or an abridged mystery translation for Kindle app for $2, or unabridged but allegedly misformatted Seidensticker for Kindle app for $3. No unabridged Waley options by ebook. An unabridged Waley hardcover is available used for $20, but that would be as heavy as dead-tree Tyler and its cover would give me facial lacerations.

      It looks to me like either you and I do a temporary dead-tree book swap, so that you can read dead-tree Tyler and compare it with apparently-practically-memorized Waley, and I can read dead-tree Waley and compare it with iPad Tyler; or, I should continue with dead-tree Tyler and compare it with iPad Suyematz and trust you that I’ve wasted my time on both translations.

      Contemporary Kyoto is, by the way, lovely, except for where it’s touristy, where it’s still lovely.

  3. mira says:

    Waley on his way.

    My favorite painting in the world is apparently in a monastery in Kyoto. It’s Mu Ch’i’s Six Persimmons. Seeing the original would be my primary reason for a trip to Japan. On the other hand, I don’t know if I could handle being in the presence of the original. It’s the Waley thing again…

    • erin says:

      Downloading another Tyler now; dead-tree Tyler on his way by return delivery.

      I’ve had the privilege of seeing any number of famous artworks in person, and while a few have been disappointments, most have caught my breath. A Rouen Cathedral of Monet’s choked me up at the Art Institute of Chicago’s series exhibition; Klimt’s “The Kiss” in Vienna made me weak in the knees. Munch’s “The Scream” in Oslo was haunting, but it was his uncatalogued sketch of puppies chasing each other around an oval braided-rag rug that floored me. Et cetera.

      So I say, go see it. Take me along. I’ll bone up on my survival-grade Japanese and maybe even help with your bags, if you’ve embraced the digital book by then.

      • erin says:

        Ack! Fail! Fail!

        NOT ONE SINGLE e-book edition currently available is unabridged! Last-minute reading of fine print reveals this hideous condition.

        Troubled. Paralyzed.

        Now what?!

  4. mira says:

    Oho! How telling. Only abridged works on the little contrivance. My, my. I should have guessed. Maybe that’s why the thing’s so lightweight?

    So that would mean only the abridged version of Ibn Khaldun’s Al Muqaddimah, rather than the three volumes with his 14th C maps? Or would that mean no Ibn Khaldun at all? And does that mean that Ovid has an abridged Talmud on his iPhone? Yes, probably does mean that, doesn’t it?

  5. erin says:

    Only the nonexistent version of Al Muqaddimah. “The Talmud,” Penguin edition, does indeed seem to be abridged. The damning subtitle: “A selection.” Other editions appear to be complete if inauthoritative. Which specifically do we want? Kaplan, right? Yeah, no luck.

    It’s not the contrivance’s fault, it’s the publishers’ fault, but here we are—all charged up, nothing to download.

  6. Reb Deb says:

    Dead-tree. Interesting. Seems to penalize the scratch of pen or pencil on paper — which is for drawing also, and calligraphy too.

    Why restrict it to dead trees? Non-electronic written communication comes in many forms. Cuneiform and engraving in rock (a bit clumsy as luggage). Papyrus, which is dead … papyrus. Paper can come from recycled linen and rags. Call it recycled-tree instead — see how that sounds. After all, trees don’t live forever whether or not you turn them into a magic communication medium afterward.

  7. erin says:

    Deb, you know how much I love paper! When most people go to Tokyo, they head for the electronics stores and the temples. I head to Ito Ya, a nine-story! office supply store in the Ginza district of Tokyo. I could spend all day picking out new pens, pencils, stationery, and fantastically narrow-ruled notebooks of the finest imaginable writing paper. My fountain pen fetish rages out of control, and I’m overcome with gizmo-lust. Ito Ya is my crack den.

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