Kindle, Poe’s poems, McCarthy’s typewriter, Nazis: Will all books become collectibles?
That’s the question that came to mind when I read about a rare Edgar Alan Poe first edition selling for $662,500. At more or less the same itme, I found a commentator who hates e-books even more than I do, likening them to Nazis and the Holocaust.
The rare edition of Poe’s first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, was expected to fetch between $600,000 and $700,000, so the final price paid at a Christie’s auction in New York on Friday comes as no surprise. Still, I’m always surprised when books are viewed as something to collect rather than read. To me, a worn, dogeared volume with a broken spine and scribbles in the margins is a book well-loved.
I guess I’ve never understood the collecting impulse. For example, why would anyone pay $254,500 for Cormac McCarthy’s Olivetti manual typewriter? Sure, I know all of his ten novels, including Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men and The Road were written on the machine, which McCarthy bought used in 1963 for $50.
But, c’mon, it’s just a broken-down piece of antiquated machinery, with no magic in it whatsoever. Compared to the books themselves, seething with language and violence and an idea or two, it’s a dead, inert thing. In this case, the price was a surprise — 10 times the $20,000 Christie’s anticipated. I’m happy to report, though, that McCarthy is not moving into the 21st century. He will write future books on an identical machine, recently bought for $20.
McCarthy’s typewriter obviously got a lot of people thinking. The Guardian asks “Do typewriters hold the keys to fine writing?”, naming Will Self, Don Delillo and Frederick Forsythe among the major authors still using typewriters instead of word processors. Taking a similar tack, the BBC investigates into the same questions, and adds a more detailed history of the typewriter to boot.
“I think the computer user does their thinking on the screen,” Self tells the BBC, “and the non-computer user is compelled, because he or she has to retype a whole text, to do a lot more thinking in the head.”
On the other hand, it’s good to be cautious about fetishizing old technology. Monks, whose business was copying manuscripts by hand, condemned the printing press, and many 19th century writers said no important book would ever be written on a typewriter. Only longhand would do, don’t you know.
Today, though, the technology that delivers books may be more important than the technology used to create them. In the Guardian, Tim Adams wonders whether “e-books will spell the end of good writing.” With Delillo’s allegiance to the typewriter in mind, Adams worries about the implicationos that Nintendo now sells 100 classic books as a “game” for its DS console.
“The makers of the bestselling Nintendo package may believe Shakespeare to be an ‘iconic author’ of ‘must-read novels’,” muses Adams, “but in describing him as such they betray some of the side-effects of their product – it treats all writing as if it were simply text, content, something else to scroll on a screen to suit your mood. DeLillo, who knows a good deal about the difference between writing and content, clearly resists this idea.”
Adams goes on to construct a long and thoughtful essay considering not only the effect of digital technology on the writing and reading of books, but on the human mind and the quality of thinking possible to a brain utterly engaged with the virtual reality of the Internet.
The harshest of backlashes against the Kindle and its kind, however, comes from San Francisco poet Alan Kaufman. Writing for The Huffington Post, Kaufman condemns e-readers, and Google Books, too, as a “concentration camp of the mind.” Writing movingly of the book burnings that preceded the murder of Jews in Nazi Germany, he likens the progress typified by reading devices with the cold technological idealism of the Nazis.
“The hi-tech campaign to relocate books to Google and replace books with Kindles is, in its essence, a deportation of the literary culture to a kind of easily monitored concentration camp of ideas,” writes Kaufman. “…This death of intellectual privacy was also a dream of the Nazis. And when I hear the term Kindle, I think not of imaginations fired but of crematoria lit.”
Hmmm. Much as I despise technology for its own sake, I don’t know if I would ever have thought to equate the Kindle with the Holocaust. But technology as a tool of fascism? Oh, yeah. I’m buying that idea.