The world’s only book, digitized and shorn of charm

Kevin Kelly’s recent article titled Scan This Book! seems to have generated a great deal of excitement and resentment in the blogosphere. The article elaborates on the advantages of having a universal digital library by scanning all available documents, a task recently undertaken by Google in collaboration with five major libraries.This week, NYT published John Updike’s response The End of Authorship, a sort of a solitary reader’s rejoinder to the digitization mania. Updike says:

Authors, if I understand present trends, will soon be like surrogate birth mothers, rented wombs in which a seed implanted by high-powered consultants is allowed to ripen and, after nine months, be dropped squalling into the marketplace.

I want very much to agree with Updike’s position, which is that free access to use, mix, simplify, summarize, and snippetize the world’s literature undermines the simple yet magical dialogue between writer and reader. I feel that Kelly is being cavalier and does not really comprehend the intensely personal nature of the reading experience. However, I have to conclude that Kelly is right and that the universal digitization drive is both inevitable and beneficial. People able to afford the conventional paper books can continue to stay away from the electronic book. However, books are often unavailable, for instance, when people cannot afford to buy them, or when a country or community refuses to publish them for politicial reasons. In these cases, it is difficult to argue against the universal library, even though, in its quest to reach wider numbers, it can sometimes degrade the experience of the more privileged solitary reader.

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