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Kindle, Poe’s poems, McCarthy’s typewriter, Nazis: Will all books become collectibles?

December 7, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe

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 $254,500 typewriter

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.

Don Delillo --Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Wm. Shakespeare, like that.

“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.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 7, 2009 2:37 pm

    I don’t use a Kindle and don’t care to. But Holocaust? No. Facsim? I don’t think so. I’ll have to think about this one for a while, Chauncey Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 7, 2009 4:55 pm

      Kaufman makes an argument that by channeling all literature into digital text, Google and Kindle obtain a stranglehold of control on books and ideas. Furthermore, abetted by the nature of the Internet, digital books put an end to privacy. Just by accessing them, you expose yourself to the eyes of anyone who wishes to pry. If he’s right — and of course he is — that is a kind of intellectual fascism, whether that’s what Google and Amazon intend or not. And I doubt it is their intention. They just want to dominate their industries and make oodles of money. Cultural responsibility is an alien concept to them.

  2. Dan permalink
    December 7, 2009 2:51 pm

    You are cordially invited to a free exhibition
    at the Boston Public Library

    The Raven in the Frog Pond:
    Edgar Allan Poe and the City of Boston

    December 17, 2009 – March 31, 2010

    For more information, please see:

    http://www.bc.edu/offices/pubaf/news/Poe_Exhibit2009_1202.html

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 7, 2009 4:56 pm

      Thanks, I won’t be able to make it, but perhaps some of the readers here can.

  3. Tommy permalink
    December 7, 2009 3:13 pm

    Like Anne Frank I am going to try my best to avoid the Nazi’s and fascists in this post.

    I would rather concentrate on the typewriter facet. More accurately the typewriter that cost one fool with more money than brains a quarter of a million dollars. I would love to have been in the room when buyers remorse descended upon this purchaser.

    “Do typewriters hold the keys to fine writing?”

    In a word, No.

    Fine writers hold the keys to fine writing. When a piece of furniture is poorly crafted I blame the carpenter, not the tool.

    This question over what a writer uses to write with reminds me of a seminar on writing I attended. When the speaker was finished and the floor was opened to questions, an aspiring author asked “What is the most important quality a writer must possess?”. The answer offered was not imagination, passion or love of the written word. No, the answer was perseverance.

    Dung beetles are also persistent creatures, yet no masterpieces have been penned by dung beetles. Insert joke about Sarah Palin or Dan Brown here.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 7, 2009 5:00 pm

      I hope you have better luck avoiding the fascists than Anne Frank. And in case you don’t, I refer you to Billy Bragg for solace and encouragement. Specifically, “All You Fascists Are Going to Lose.”

      I also agree that typewriters, of course, do not hold the key to good writing. But my years of reading books on evolution taught me, among other things, that once humans make a tool, the tool then makes them. So the choice of writing tool cannot help but have an effect on a writer’s work. For good or ill.

      • Tommy permalink
        December 7, 2009 5:35 pm

        I am sure to be found out if I am blaring Billy “The Baird of London” Bragg while banging on my typewriter.

  4. rachel permalink
    December 7, 2009 3:59 pm

    Tommy, I agree that the use of a typewriter does not promise great writing. And that it is indeed ridiculous that someone bought McCarthy’s typewriter for that amount of money, unless of course they know something that we don’t, like that the typewriter really does have superpowers and magically makes the typist a writing genius.

    However, I must say that it is very different to write on a typewriter than on a computer. Different in a way that is pleasing to my fingers and my ears and my eyes and my mind and my imagination. It is also very different to write longhand. There is something to be said for using a notebook and a pen. Something happens between the pen in my hand and the paper, something organic that cannot happen when I am writing on a computer, or a typewriter for that matter. So no, I don’t think that typewriters are far superior but there is definitely a relationship between the author and whatever tool he uses to get his words on paper. And that choice drastically alters the writing process and therefore must have at least a slight effect on the product.

    • Tommy permalink
      December 7, 2009 5:32 pm

      So we are in agreement. The device whether pen, typewriter or word processor has an effect on the finished product and the expression therein. We also agree that the method used does not have the ability to make a pearl out of sand. Unless of course you develop and market that super power laden typewriter which makes great writers out of any Tom, Dick and Sherri. Then of course bad writers would be at a premium, and we would all sit around and joyously discuss how terrible that last book was.

      I personally prefer to write in long hand ( enjoying and taking advantage of that “something” you mentioned) then input the type into a word processor refining as I go along.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 7, 2009 5:03 pm

    I could not have said it better myself.

  6. December 7, 2009 7:49 pm

    What they talking bout. Fascism really starts with limited choices in thinking. It starts with intelligence control. It can go on from there to mean complete control. Usually a lot of people get killed in the end. It has happened in the world many times. It now takes a different form as nations watch. It is allowed to happen on a slow burn scale, even to day. What I think is meant by kindle and google is simple. They strive to control the market. Ramifications mean little. Remember, Get Smart. Chaos and Control.
    As far as the typewriter. It was the way of new communications for a long time. The writer, journalist, and the newspaper man, pounding away to meet a deadline. Hat on, smoke rising to the single light above. That was America.

  7. Alan Troop permalink
    December 7, 2009 9:07 pm

    Don’t you think it a little ironic that a writer of a blog, who composes, delivers and publishes his words electronically should lament the growing popularity of a new electronic medium as anticreative, soul killing and fascistic. The simple fact is that most writers do their writing on computers because it makes their work – and its editing – faster and easier.

    Likewise, Amazon’s Kindle has been successful because it delivers books and a perfectly enjoyable reading experience faster, easier and at a lower cost . The fear that paper books may go the way of analog records is perfectly justifiable. But ereaders as fascist tools? Bushwah and humbug.

    There’s nothing fascist or monopolistic about the Kindle or the growing number of it’s competitors. It’s just good business to find a new and better way of delivering a product that consumers want. Personally I’m happy as long as people buy books and read them – no matter what the medium.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 8, 2009 1:00 pm

      Alan, you make perfect sense, but as a buggy maker frantically trying to learn auto mechanics, I can view e-books only with fear and dread. I think it very likely the digitization of the world to be an unstoppable wave that will alter everything, no matter what a bad idea I personally (and professionally) may think it is. But consider this: If dedicated ereading devices like the Kindle triumph, bookstores will go away. Completely. There will be no need for them. To me, this will be an unmitigated cultural disaster. Is it an inevitable evolutionary development? Probably. Will I do my best to adapt? Yes. But no one can make me like it.

  8. December 7, 2009 10:43 pm

    Oh yes, the typewriter. I wrote my first 3 novels on one of those, but wrote them longhand first, and you are dead on to say there’s something that happens between the pen and the hand. I still do most of it that way. Notes and yellow legal pads before a draft on the computer. Poor typewriter neglected now. But what can you do but try to adapt to new technologies. Excepting Kindle. Ugh. No way ever. Am I showing my age? I have to have that book-feel and smell and the beauty of the type on those pages. That will never change. For me. Obscene, by the way, what the old boy got for his phking typewriter.

  9. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 8, 2009 1:04 pm

    Let me correct the record to this extent: Cormac McCarthy donated the enormous sum his old typewriter brought at auction to a nonprofit outfit called the Santa Fe Institute, which The New York Times describes as “a nonprofit interdisciplinary scientific research organization.” So don’t image McCarthy sipping Margarita’s on a beach in Baja….

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