September 28, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

The Book As Subversive Object

Our friend and KR alum Kirsten Reach has begun writing terrific posts over at if: book, the blog of the Institute for the Future of the Book, lending weight to my private theory that Kirsten is actually the next evolution of the human species. Personally, I’m convinced by the idea that the future of the book is as a hybrid technology, part electronic media, part paper and ink, mainly because both those technologies are necessary. I’m thinking here about the way books have functioned as an evolutionary object for our species, moving us from individual to collective forms of memory and innovation. It’s because of writing that we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel, or the sonnet, and can share that discovery with those who live a thousand miles away or a thousand years from now. In these terms, e-books, once they become widely available, will offer an easy means for the dissemination of ideas, information, and pleasure. (If the transition to e-books causes anxiety among publishers, it’s because by being so easy to make they become harder to sell. Commodity capitalism requires an object — a book, a CD — and as the music industry has found, it’s much harder to control the market for information.) On the other hand, books also serve as a form of long-term memory, an object that — while fragile and easy to burn — can help to preserve ideas and aesthetic aspirations during our species’ darkest hours simply because they are small, widely dispersed across the landscape, and easy to hide. When the power grid one day crashes, as we all secretly know it must, and the batteries fade on all those e-books, we’ll all be glad to start lining up at our local libraries for books on organic gardening and how to drill a well. And when the tyrant tries to halt human evolution by controlling the flow of information, it is both the samizdat and the subversive website that will allow us to whisper the truth to each other: both are necessary since books can be easily seized and burned, but just as easily hidden and passed from hand to hand when the digital networks become a web spun by the prowling spiders of state security.

This struck me again while reading the story in this morning’s Guardian about an attack on the small London publisher bringing out Sherry Jones’ novel The Jewel of Medina. If books are becoming irrelevant, somebody clearly didn’t get the memo. The irony in such an attack, of course, is that it’s carried out on behalf of one book against all others. And I suspect that will always be the case: book burning or book banning is almost always an attempt to defend cultural memory against the evolutionary impulse to innovation. Paradoxically, we might call those who practice this dark art preservationists, since their actions are designed to make us readers, not writers, with our eyes focused on a single, authoritative text. That book might be a little red one (or a little read one) or it might be God’s word burned into paper, but its proponents want us to commit it — and ourselves — to memory. They fear the book’s role as a virus of innovation, which, by reflecting the way minds have changed in one part of the world, can create change in another.

If there’s any consolation in such moments for me, it’s the knowledge that you can’t stop evolution by not believing in it. Denying evolution simply condemns you to being left behind. You might slow the virus in one part of the body for a time, but it will spring up elsewhere and continue to spread. America’s “sexy librarian” wouldn’t be able to keep the books out of our hands, even if she managed to clear them off the shelves. She would simply create a taste for those books that speak a different truth, creating the next generation of Solzhenitsyns, Havels, and Ginsbergs.

Books are subversive objects, and as we consider their future, we might do well to remember that we’re talking about more than commodities. We’re talking about our minds. What shape or shapes best express them? Fixed or fluid? Carved in stone or constantly changing? As the Guardian story suggests, we may wish it to be one, but it’s both.

Advertise in The Kenyon Review: Reach an Exceptional Market of Readers

The Kenyon Review is distributed through paid subscriptions and retail distribution (including Barnes & Noble), and is available at more than 1,000 libraries.

Our readers are smart, savvy, and have purchasing power.

Download PDF forms for specifications and reservations. (You must have Acrobat Reader in order to download PDFs.)

Need more info? Contact us and we'll get back to you quickly. Or call Jackson Saul at (740) 427-5389.

All advertising is subject to the approval of The Kenyon Review, which reserves the right to reject or cancel any ad at any time. Advertisements are accepted upon the representation that the Advertiser and its agencies are authorized to publish the contents thereof.