July 18, 2009 Google or Books? Dust in the Brain
An often benighted view of ebooks from Peter Green’s review in The Times Literary Supplement July 15, 2009. Google Books or Great Books? The enduring value of the Republic of Letters, in all its forms.
Anthony Grafton, WORLDS MADE BY WORDS: Scholarship and community in the modern west. 422pp. Harvard University Press. £22.95 (US $29.95). 978 0 674 03257 8
Why is there always this insecurity? Why must it always be one or the other? What is it about so many scholars and people of literary sensibility, speaking as a poet, if I may say so of myself, that they cannot see the profound cultural and intellectual value of digital books?
I have on my Sony Reader over 1,400 books and articles, hundreds of them from Google, Gutenberg.org, and elsewhere. The vast majority of them are GREAT BOOKS. I’m currently reading Jane Austen’s PERSUASION, an ebook from Gutenberg, not to be confused with a Harlequin romance, though tastes and temperament may differ.
I’ve been reading great books all my life and am emphatically not threatened by the bourgeoning online availability of much of the entire world cultural heritage. It’s a vast enrichment to be celebrated! Not merely so you can look up a hardcopy in a brick and mortar library.
Only insecure academicians seem to think otherwise. Begrudging recognition of what Google has accomplished falls very short of the mark of what it and others have achieved and deserve, as a result of the over-all computer revolution of the last three decades.
Who is seriously thinking of replacing traditional libraries entirely? I don’t believe it will happen or even can or should happen. There are distinctive virtues of the traditional, physical library that only it can accomplish.
Predictably, here’s the same old, out-dated conception of the role of the humanist, the calling of the sensitive, sophisticated, well-read, intellectual mind, according to Green, apparently Grafton, and so typical of the university today:
What, then, is the true legacy of the Republic of Letters in its pursuit of truth? For scholars, the answer has always been clear. The giants of Renaissance humanism retrieved, in the teeth of medieval opposition, that Graeco-Roman, essentially secular, world view, along with much of its literature, that was in danger of perishing altogether, or at the very least of surviving only as stunted religious allegory and misunderstood moral aphorisms.
This tenor is eventually followed up by the same tiresome, usual pieties, derision for “vocational training,” flourishes in the direction of St John’s College, the value of Latin, etc. The pathetic, endemic failure of imagination among scholars and academia is all it seems either Grafton or Green can come up with. No wonder so many young people have left the humanities and literature behind, in search of what they may not know, but clearly they won’t find it often, today, in a university.
Better to search and read online than in the dusty arguments of hundreds of years of repeated, near-sighted, and blind cliches. Pity, The Times Literary Supplement, a magazine I’ve read for decades, can’t come up with anything better than this either. But then, they’re part of the problem, not the search for the answer.