The End of Authorship. . . .or just reading?

In today’s NYTimes Magazine, John Updike has a piece defending authorship and books against the usual digerati critiques. I basically agree with it, but I took special note of the following:

Kevin Kelly, identified as the “senior maverick” at Wired magazine, the article describes a glorious digitalizing of all written knowledge. […]

Unlike the libraries of old, Kelly continues, “this library would be truly democratic, offering every book to every person.” The anarchic nature of the true democracy emerges bit by bit. “Once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page,” Kelly writes. “These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or ‘playlists,’ as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual ‘bookshelves’ – a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these ‘bookshelves’ will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages.”

Does Kelly read? Does he write? He certainly doesn’t do much with music if he can’t tell the difference between a relatively pedestrian playlist and a remix. But really, one of the scary thing about the whole digerati thing is their collective illiteracy. You have a group, exemplified by the kinds of faux-savants that Wired likes to put forward who make claims about history and writing without knowing any. Pretty much every book I pick up inovlves a good deal of “sampling” and “remixing.” It was Walter Benjamin who hoped to write an essay someday that was composed of nothing but quotations from others. I know it’s been tried by several literature professors, though to my knowledge none has had a big impact. In fact, when I write, my own reading practices are exactly as they describe: I dart in and out of books looking for the right section, passage or inspiration. Other times, I work through an argument carefully. Perhaps this process is occluded through the publication process itself. It was, after all, Oxford University Press who asked C. Wright Mills to gut his endnotes for The Power Elite. All this is to say that if there ever were a universal digital library, and some day there might be one, its “revolutionary” character will not be in digital remixing or creative copying of text. We’ve already got online paper-mills for that.

The big obstacle for google and everyone else is sustained reading on screens. Right now, it just isn’t happening, and books remain more portable and convivial than PDAs or electronic reading devices. . .at least for now.(1) The codex is a centuries-old technology of which I’m particularly fond. Someday, it may disappear as well, but not just because someone at google wants to make some money.

1. I did just find a way to dump rss feeds onto my ipod and that’s pretty cool. Now I can read blogs while waiting for the train. At least those of you who write shorter entries. . . .