The great thing about having an all-purpose blog is that you can write about things that are not in the news, and have no relation to current affairs. In this case, I thought I would post something I should have written a few weeks ago.
On the 14 of January, I was delighted to speak at the AGM of the Society of Young Publishers. The theme was banned books, and censorship. One of the questions was regarding Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn. Apparently an academic in the USA named Alan Gribben decided to re-publish the book, replacing the word ‘Nigger’ throughout. What did I think of this?
This is quite possibly the perfect question for this blog, focusing as I do with questions of free expression and political correctness, and also how digital technologies affect publishing. How to reconcile the rights of people to publish what they want, with the uncomfortable Orwellian overtones that happens when you replace one word for another in a text? How to reconcile the bullying and harm that the dreaded ‘N-word’ can cause, with the historical context?
I couple of few weeks ago, I pasted into my Commonplace Book this delightful take on eBooks from China Miéville:
We are, at last, leaving phase one of the ebook discussion, during which people could ritually invoke the ‘smell of paper’ as a call to cultural barricades. Some anxieties are tenacious: how will people know what a splendid person I am without a pelt of the right visible books on my walls, without the pretty qlippoth husks? A hopeful future: that our grandchildren will consider our hankering for erudition-décor a little needy
This point clearly touched a nerve. It went semi-viral with 104 people reblogging it.
I confess to being precisely the kind of chauvinist for the physicality of books that Miéville mocks, though his framing makes me think I am being unnecessarily sentimental.
One argument in favour of physical books: they demand to be read. Sitting on the shelf, they are a Constant reminder of their unreadness. A physical book may inspire or guilt-trip its owner into picking it up, merely by virtue of its existence.
This is not the case with virtual books. Last week, I downloaded free e-book versions many of the classics featured on thisObserver list of essential novels. However, the electronic files sit hidden away, in a virtual folder, within an app, concealed on the third screen of programmes on my device. Out of sight, out of mind. They cannot command my attention like tangible objects.
At the event on Tuesday night, I remarked that China Mieville and Cory Doctorow share an irritating trait, which is to lathe my own ideas into science fiction books, many years before I even have the thought for the first time!
One example of this is on the important science-fiction problem of teleporting, and the possibility of transferring of one’s mind between matter. I scribbled some concerns about this earlier this year, but now I find that Mieville got there first, in Kraken (p.221):
This is why I wouldn’t travel that way,” Dane said. “This is my point. For a piece of rock or clothes or something dead, who cares? But take something living and do that? Beam it up? What you done is ripped a man apart then stuck his bits back together and made them walk around. He died. Get me? The man’s dead. And the man at the other end only thinks he is the same man. He ain’t. He only just got born. He’s got the other’s memories, yeah, but he’s newborn. That Enterprise, they keep killing themselves and replacing themselves with clones of dead people. That is some macabre shit. That ship’s full of Xerox copies for people who died.”
I love this kind of esoteric debate. Teleportation might never become a reality, but the questions raised by science fiction are essential when we consider the nature of the mind and artificial intelligence.