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The electrickal method and Mark Twain

November 5, 2010

One hundred and ten years ago, somebody was thinking about electronic publishing.

On October 17, 1900, George Harvey, president of Harper and Brothers Publishing Company wrote to Samuel Clemons’ literary agent about the great man’s on again off again autobiography.  Clemons, though he had barely begun on the project, refused to allow any publication of those memoirs during his lifetime, wanting to be completely frank and open—he didn’t want to offend anyone. He was thinking that his memoirs would be published in the year 2000, though heavily abridged versions did appear during the 20th century.  In a major literary event, the first volume of the Complete and Authoritative Edition of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, is now available from the University of California Press.  It would seem that, now, we can handle the truth.

Anyway, Mr. Harvey wrote;

“The agreement would, of course, provide for publication in whatever modes should then be prevalent, that is, by printing as at present, or by use of phonographic cylinders, or by electrical method, or by any other mode which may then be in use, any number of which would doubtless occur to his vivid imagination, and would form an interesting clause in the agreement.”

I find it amazing that in the year 1900—one hundred and ten years ago!—anybody, even a publishing wizard of the day such as Harvey, would have the vision, the ability to think so out of the contemporary box as to even contemplate publishing “by electrical method.”  This, when telephones were crazy new, barely used and typesetting machines were high technology.  Mind blazing.

And here we are, in our electronically enlightened and networked age, only now beginning to come to terms with anything other than leaves of paper as the only true way to transmit written work.

Not that I’m a bomb-throwing e-publishing/e-book radical.  I’m not.  Yes, I’ve got an iPad and I’m reading the electrickal version of Christopher Hitchens’ wonderful political memoir Hitch-22.  A fine book, recommended.  I do find the e-reading experience sort of pleasurable, convenient and even, somewhat tactile in a distantly familiar sort of way—touching the screen, flipping the pages in that Apple magical way, holding the slim, sleek sheet of aluminum casing, feeling its satisfying heft, though not warm, it’s at least dimly suggestive, in a 21st Century way, of the fetish I have for fine paper and excellent, old-fashioned bindings.  It’s very cool.

But I wouldn’t even consider acquiring Twain’s massive Autobiography in its e-book format.  Forget it.  Just ain’t right.  The soul of the book is not just in the ideas or the writing—the soul is in the entire beautifully designed and manufactured product package.

Oh, I could get it on Amazon’s Kindle, the more mass-market stab at an e-reader that even my father-in-law has—he, who doesn’t care about books, only the content—he’ll read a book and then toss it aside.  He doesn’t care about it. To him, the book itself is not an object of veneration—it’s simply a container, a conveniently disposal vessel of ideas or entertainment.

And that’s the heart of it. It hurts to say it, but my father-in-law is current, cutting edge. And I’m stuck in the past.

His thinking is thoroughly postmodern, thoroughly 21st century—my father-in-law is in the avant-garde, ready to accept the shock of the new.  And here I am, clinging to my physically bound books, handling them carefully, savoring their feel, the look, the design, placing them on wooden shelves, allowing dust to gather over the decades, while this cranky eighty-something is entirely comfortable with an invisible collection of bits and bytes stored in a piece of beige plastic carelessly flung on his desk.

But, here’s a question—what about the information permanency of that e-book?  What happens when the next platform shows up?  What happens to the digital book I buy now in the future?

It’s like the computer industry, technology advancing rapidly, leaving old means of information storage or communications techniques obsolete and in the dust but still in use, still built-in to everyday life.  Does my Hitch-22 transfer to the next reading platform with the speed of Moore’s Law, an instant upgrade to the future?  I can see it now—another goofy cable connection from old box to new box, a conversion from that old method to the new—it’ll be an emulation of a simulation of the Kindle 1.0 to whatever electrickal method is current in 2014. Or 2025.

So I’m the Luddite, I’m the one behind the times, clinging to the past.  Yes, I’m being strangely conservative.

And George Harvey, Samuel Clemons’ publisher from 1900, and probably even Sam himself, would probably nod wisely and say,  maybe we’d better wait another hundred years for a real electrickal method.  No rush.

Note: This is essay will be broadcast on the Lake Effect program on WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio, 89.7, on December 14, 2010, 10-11 AM.

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