I recently had the experience of being interviewed for a newspaper article about the Rare Book School, where I work part time. The reporter, a forthright sort of journalist with a minimally cynical affect, told me his angle right from the beginning: the book, it seems—that is, the physical book, that persistent little brick of printed pages seen often cluttering the tops of coffee-tables or sagging the center of poorly constructed bookshelves—is dead. In this digital age we live in, we no longer need those moldering tomes to weigh us down. All the heavy weight of books is soon to be lifted, replaced by the ephemeral imp of digital ether.
We talked over dinner, a communal affair at RBS, and while the two faculty members to my right argued about current trends in curation and collection, the reporter told me a little about his comic book collection and about reading children’s books to his son on his ipad. He asked me what I thought of his dead-books idea and I told him, gently I hoped, that there are always other angles. Why, I asked, must we perpetuate this battle between book and everything else in the modern world that vies for our attention? Radios, televisions, movies, and now the computer—what if they offer us not an alternative to print, but a series of complements, many voices in a multi-layered harmony. He seemed dubious, but listened politely enough.
When the article came out, the print-is-dead premise remained, and I read it in two formats: on paper and online; someone even posted a link to it on facebook. There were of course differences in the two versions—different pictures accompanied the online text, and it had been shortened in such a way that made the prose at times choppy. I wondered which version the reporter preferred: the one that left a few inkstains on the hands of its reader or the one that ended up in my email inbox.
So much of digital humanities scholarship has focused on how we embrace the physical world even when our arms are made of circuits and software. This, to me, is what makes the world of the digital humanities so very vitally important—far from living in the cloud, digital humanities has its feet in on the ground, worrying about how we manage data, where we store it, and how we keep it sustainable. It is often theoretical work, but the sort that makes possible the commingling of artifact and simulacra. Digital humanities scholarship can, I believe, if we invest enough of ourselves into it, give us a Grand Unifying Theory that explains why a man whose profession has grown fat on the persistence of print and who lovingly hordes each issue and edition of The Green Hornet first thumbed in childhood raptures would be so gleeful at the demise of the book.
Months later, I find myself in conversation with fellow grad students about finding a well-edited digital edition of an essay on Tennyson. We denigrate the poor quality of OCR and trade googling strategies and talk about the difficulties of the facsimile.
In the classroom, my students have laptops but also print-outs. Sometimes they even buy the book, and decorate the pages with a veritable rainbow of exuberant post-it notes. They text one another furiously, especially when they think I am not looking.
Maybe the book is dead after all. But if this is so I want to be a necromancer, and with the magic of code I want to resurrect the ghosts of books–the real ghost in the machine.