Separating the Message from the Medium
When I needed to clear some space in my apartment upon entering my last semester at school, the starting point was too simple. It was, of course, the encyclopedias. The set of encyclopedias my parents let me take upstate last year just to get them the hell out of their apartment. Yes, the encyclopedias had to go — unceremoniously, in bags, slam-dunked into the dumpster out back. My roommate was bored and thus helped by launching the encyclopedias, one at a time, from atop the fire escape, in the general direction of the dumpster. We laughed really hard.
It was jetsam that required no sinking ship.
And if it had been a sinking ship — if my building, which shakes frequently, crumbles perpetually, and whose walls are lined with resident bees, had a sea-faring equivalent — the encyclopedias would, of course, still belong to me regardless. Jetsam, by law, is not freely recoverable without explicit permission from the captain of the vessel. This is, of course, assuming that he and the crew have survived. Or maybe the ship is owned by another; someone landlocked and wealthy may have the sole claim on that waterlogged property. The captain is just a middle manager. In this case, he has, in what was perhaps necessary haste, tossed that which never belonged to him into the depths. This is probably the case.
I’m the captain. But while the waters in which I sail are often coastal, navigation is impossible. My compass is only an affectation, and the magnetic poles from which it draws invisible energy don’t seem really to exist. Reaching port is never really necessary. And I think that’s part of why we were laughing.
I didn’t even open the books before we started throwing them away. If pressed to describe them, as in some awkward maritime eulogy, I could say that they had dark blue covers, were all in excellent condition, and were published in 1992 — two millennia after the first encyclopedic works were being written by the Romans, and two years after my own birth. You, too, can learn both of these historical facts at the click of a button.
As the beneficent owner of the vessel placed temporarily under my command, you might ask: What storm compelled you to eject the cargo? What tidal convulsion made this lightening of the load so vital? And why was this particular weight just enough to tip the scales in your favor? Assuming I lived through the encounter, I might respond simply by saying that I know the water, and that answer should, to a reasonable employer, be satisfactory. But if you really want to know, I threw out all the encyclopedias because I realized how stupid I was for thinking that, as books, they held some kind of inherent value that I in turn was preserving.
We’ve been hearing a lot of back-and-forth over the past few years. Technology fiends tell us the very act of buying a book, (especially in a real bookstore), is dated and stupid. Lit purists tell us the very act of holding a book is something so uniquely special that failing to love it enough will result some kind of intellectual apocalypse. And no matter how loudly both sides yell, they fail to understand the simple fact that underlies every discussion like that that has ever taken place —and, oh, there have been many.
what we’re really reading are the authors, not the books
That fact is this, (as Bill Clinton would have said it):
“It’s information, stupid!”
(And the word ‘book’ is not — no matter how much Jonathon Franzen would like it to be — a synecdochic representation of the word ‘literature’ [or, in the case of the encyclopedias, ‘knowledge’].)
So it’s information. The stuff of books, fiction or non, is chunks of information arranged in different ways. Sometimes, we take those arrangements and arrange them into traditions, periods, or schools of thought. Sometimes we feel threatened or liberated by them. Which is kind of weird, because what we’re really reading are the authors, not the books, right? We’re just walking decoders of the information being disseminated to us via the written word.
Over the course of the 20th century, some of our favorite authors helped us to finally realize that the philosophical values we once thought inseparable from objects, relationships, impulses and even words turned out just to be arbitrary labels created — by us — over long periods of time. And we decoded that information, communicated to us through a series of letters and spaces, nodding: “Yes! This makes sense!”
With that in mind, let’s think about the argument for or against physical books and retailers.
On the one hand, you’ve got a bunch of people placing an immense amount of material value on the technological achievements of mankind, which they say are worthwhile in that they make our lives more efficient. These are the ones who tell you that Amazon is awesome because it makes it easier and cheaper for people to acquire books, or that digital texts are superior because they offer a new array of publishing and reading opportunities that exemplify the fluid nature of contemporary culture and media.
On the other hand, you’ve got a bunch of people placing an equally immense amount of material value on printed books, which they say are worthwhile in that they form a irreplaceable core of the literary tradition and do more to continue that tradition than do digital texts (or online retailers). These are the ones who tell you that, if you stop buying books from your local indie store, you no longer respect the craft of writing or interpreting real literature.
So, although they wouldn’t want you to think this, they’re basically arguing the same point — that a particular medium by which to decode information can have inherent material value.
They’ve missed the memo about the way information flows, and the changing nature of its vehicles. They’ve failed to separate the message from the medium, and I don’t really understand why. Of all people, it should’ve been 21st century readers who finally realized that all they’re doing is looking at a series of letters. We’ve deconstructed everything else; why haven’t we gotten around the deconstruction of the way in which we receive not the thematic content of books, but the barest bones of information itself? And this doesn’t mean I’m going to throw out all of my paperbacks now. It doesn’t mean I’m going to burn my Kindle. It means I don’t feel that, by using either (or neither) method of decoding my information, I’m doing some kind of service to either the tradition of technological advancement or that of literary pith. How could I ever? How could Jonathan ever? How could anyone ever choose a correct path for a world of information that, as Baudrillard told us, ‘thinks itself?’
These are the waters we navigate now. The magnetic poles can no longer pull us one way or another, so we’ve chosen to begin blowing into the sails in various opposing directions, believing that in doing so we’ve become masters of our own ideological or literary fates. But as long as we remain hung up on debating something so arbitrary as the vessel by which we decode our signs and symbols, we can’t really claim to have learned anything from those whom we might now champion in defense of those same petty points of view.
The previous owner of my cargo waives his right to it the moment I decode it. When I jettison it in ecstasy, I do so knowing that his claims on it — it by now somewhere very different than my bookshelf, being used perhaps by some small animal for warmth and protection aside a fenced-off trash heap — have been voided by their very existence.
And throwing stuff around, however you try to dissect it, is always going to be kind of fun.