Spring 2010

Leftovers / The Art of Mechanical Reproduction

Pointing toward the future of the book

Yara Flores

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

Among those who read and write, few questions currently loom larger than “the future of the book.” In the last five years alone, some ten million volumes have suddenly come online in electronically searchable form through Google’s massive program of library partnerships and intensive scanning. Already this represents a significant percentage (maybe ten percent?) of the totality of our intellectual patrimony. Assuming that several outstanding legal/financial questions are resolved, and that the pace of digitization is maintained (currently thousands of pages per hour), something very close to the entire universe of text will soon exist as “information” in online databases.

For many purposes, we’re there: as recently as a decade ago it was impossible to do serious research in any artistic or humanistic field without physical access to a major library. This now seems quaint. The consequent transformation of learned culture rivals anything in the history of civilization. No one has any idea where we are headed, or what it will look like to “think” in another twenty years. The book itself may genuinely become a relic, and with its gradual disappearance we will lose what has been for some sixteen hundred years the basic technology of erudition, memory, and expressive continuity for most of the earth’s literate population. It promises to be a strange ride.

At the heart of this revolution is the actual process of physically scanning millions upon millions of printed books that currently sit on the shelves of repository libraries around the globe. Google has treated many of the details of this undertaking as proprietary, but it is known to be a manual affair: each book must be laid on a cradle beneath the lights and cameras, and its pages must be turned, by hand, leaf by leaf. There is in fact a Google rumor that the very first such exercise was performed by Larry Page himself back in 2002 as a proof of concept, and that he used a metronome to set the rhythm: tick, flip, click; tock, flip, click; tick, flip, click. We might think of this scene as a fateful intersection between the history of reading and the history of the engineer’s time-and-motion study. In effect, the library was shaking hands with the assembly line, and the world of the book would never be the same.

It is difficult to decide if these photographic “readings”—now taking place continuously around the world in darkened library basements—represent the apotheosis of a given volume or something closer to its erasure. In one sense, the physical book is being universalized into a newly ubiquitous digital form; in another sense, however, its paper pages are being turned for what could well be the last time. That lovely Hegelian term aufhebung feels relevant: how else to express “abolished” and “preserved” at the same time?

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