Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. His new essay collection, Measure Yourself Against the Earth, will appear this fall.
The argument is as old as Plato's Phaedrus. When it comes to conveying truth in discourse, which is superior, speech or writing? Plato has Socrates prevaricate on the issue – an irony doubled given that this written document, passed down over the centuries, purports to record a spoken conversation.
Technology's wayward march ups the stakes of the question at every turn. What vagaries will writing and reading encounter next? Amazon proposes to pay some authors based on the number of downloaded pages that customers read. The head of Penguin Random House Canada says only books with an oomph of $100,000 are worthy of his attention. Writers everywhere express their dismay and outrage! But this is all too predictable. The Amazon gambit is immediately subject to bot-driven gaming: Surely there are algorithms that can mimic reading, generating false totals of attention like computer-generated votes for baseball's All-Star Game? Meanwhile, the hundred-grand figure is a duck blind for what we all know – that mid-list authors are the peasants of publishing, precarious catalogue-camouflage for bestsellers and their agents
An online metric called Artrank.com is more precise. This is an array of visual artists ranked as a function of their economic performance. Painters and sculptors are grouped into purchasing categories "using over three-million historic data points" that create "quarterly actionable projections allowing you to make informed decisions investing in and discovering new and emerging artists," its website boasts.
You can't blame people for wanting in on this action. Fame and fortune have ever beckoned in the republic of art and letters. A more interesting problem is why the rest of us care so much about the products of all that misguided aesthetic ambition.
"Sir, the worst way of being intimate is by scribbling," Dr. Johnson told James Boswell. But he was wrong. In fact, the best way to convey the intimate essence of self is via the complex avenues of the written word. No other mechanism devised by the human mind succeeds so well in transmitting that mind's quality to another sentient being. A good book can be as comforting as sinking into a warm bath or as unnerving as being spooked by a household intruder.
I was reminded of all this by reading, in old-school hard-copy fashion, a new book by my friend and Harvard colleague Matthew Battles. Palimpsest is the aptly titled result of years of thinking hard about the nature of books and their readers. Mr. Battles is a seasoned veteran of the territory. His earlier book about public libraries, Library: An Unquiet History, was a tour de force of cultural excavation, unearthing the politics of what many of us take for granted: a building with books that we can borrow and return. Given that books were, for centuries, as rare and coveted as gemstones, this is amazing.
As is the very idea of the written word. Palimpsest explores the magical background of what every thumb-jockey texter and Twitter-twit assumes without thought – that the very idea of writing expresses a wish, however delusional, to be read. For millenniums, this ability to fashion letters with a view to comprehension was a gift of the gods.
Thus we have law, and memory, and the precious fleeting swirls of human consciousness rendered in tactile form, the mind extended in time and space. Printed words assume an air of authority. But this, too, is an illusion. Mr. Battles reminds us that a palimpsest is an overwritten text, a scroll or page upon which many inscriptions and erasures have been embossed. The authority of words always depends upon selective suspensions of disbelief.
Yes, books as we know them now experience pressures of exigency we could not have imagined a generation ago.
But in the historic sweep, these forces are nothing compared with the tectonic shifts that made printed books possible in the first place. Kindle is trivial next to moveable type; the fickleness of today's large book advances are far less uncertain than patronage, serialization or subscription drives.
Books are transparent technology only because we've had them for centuries. All containers eventually surrender themselves to the value of what they contain; current vessels will be transparent too, given time. It's a lesson Plato taught more than two millenniums ago. Don't ever be fooled by the vehicle; it's the meaning that matters. Of course, it is.
Mark Kingwell's new essay collection, Measure Yourself Against the Earth, will appear this fall.