Digitising immortal prose

The fate of books in the digital age is in the news (again). Last weekend Amazon ceased to sell Macmillan publications after a dispute over Amazon’s aggressive underpricing of ebooks. Google’s legal director has an opinion piece (or should that be, piece of self-promotion?) in today’s Guardian explaining why that company’s proposed digitisation of the world’s entire stock of books is an altruistic public service. And writer Caleb Crain, when looking up in (where else) Google Books an essay by Immanuel Kant entitled ‘Of the Injustice of Counterfeiting Books,’ found a key passage on copyright had been marked for posterity by a nameless technician, who had scanned his or her fingers over the text.

As a metaphor for the relationship the digital age has with intellectual property (and do read Mr Crain’s take on this), this last can hardly be bettered. It’s so brilliant, I almost want to think the owner of those digits did it on purpose. That scanned hand is at once taking away this book from its author and publisher, and offering to the world to read. It is presenting a faithful facsimile while in fact altering the content. Kant, being two hundred years dead, isn’t likely to be bothered about the copyright of his essay, but on his behalf the writer in me feels offended as well as amused by the implied carelessness. Instead of words painstakingly chosen and immortalised in print to express the workings of an individual mind, Google presents readers with the anonymous digits of Everyman.

Of course any writer who is published or dreams of publication wants her book to get into the hands of Everyman. And as soon as she does put her words out into the world, they no longer belong to her. Anyone with access to a bookshop or library can read, misunderstand and reinterpret them, find hidden meanings the writer had no idea she’d put there, use them as an inspiration or justification for actions the writer might admire or abhor. Readers can love or hate the characters those words make, or invent continued adventures for them the writer never dreamed of. They can devour a story in childhood and remember it in adulthood as telling an entirely different tale. Readers can scribble in books, write notes in the margin, underline favourite bits or cross out ones they don’t agree with; they can sell a book or give it away, cherish it or tear it up for toilet paper.

It’s all this that makes writing exciting, and publishing worthwhile for an author. But it is harder to cherish a digital file, whether it’s an e-book or an mp3, and I think easier to regard the song or the book as no one’s property – certainly not the author’s. I do wonder if digitisation is going to irrevocably cheapen books. In return for added convenience, I expect readers will get more and more used to typos, missing text and scanned extras (let’s hope those stay at the odd techie’s hand), just as we’ve got used to the poorer sound quality of mp3s.

At the same time, it’s worth remembering that what’s important are the words expressing ideas and stories, not the paper they are written on.

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