Jorge Luis Borges’ short story,’The Library of Babel’ explicates the universe as an endless library inhabited by mankind in his search for the knowledge and truth of life. Such is the significance of the book as a metaphor for life that, through every cultural shift from the beginning of time, mankind has sought to pay homage to its significance and power.
It is only with the advent of a digital revolution that books as we know them, have been under attack. Patrick W Connor writes in his article about ‘Hypertext in the last days of the book’ that, “The essence of a collective human textuality is – and has always been – its potential to be a hypertext.” (Connor, 9) As I understand it, he postulates that our current digital culture is a mere natural progression from the collective oral traditions of the 15th Century. As the book took over from the illiteracy of an oral tradition, links of commonality between sources were lost in the transition. With print came standardization, literacy and a singular mode of transcription.
In the age of digital technology, hypertext unites a number of sources to work collaboratively where, the material book stands alone as a single source. Connor praises the hyper-textual possibilities of the digital age and bases his argument for technology over materiality on accessibility and speed. For example, he says that “...technology is irresistible, because it promises to alter the physical manifestations of space and time in which print has locked the reading process.” (Connor, 17) Acknowledging that electronic text is reliant on storage media, he suggests that the accessibility of hypertext is superior as it can be accessed multiplicity and simultaneously, all around the world, giving power to the reader, over the author. The hypertext can be manipulated by the reader as it is constructed and deconstructed with the click of a button. It could be argued that their ability to manipulate it, only serves to undermine and debase the original source, i.e. the material book and perhaps removes the relationship that the reader has in the past built up with the book as a material object.
If we take as an example, the medieval text ‘The Book of Margery Kempe‘ written in the 15th Century, it can be seen from the one surviving copy of the manuscript that as an orally dictated piece, by the author to a scribe, it stands alone as a text which is designed to be read from beginning to end in linear fashion. It was digitized and put on the internet by the British Library for academics to pour over in high definition from their computer screens and hugely advantageous as this has been for anyone wishing to get close to the text, it cannot replicate the intimacy felt by holding the material book itself in your hand and touching the original vellum pages as they were intended. The hand-written text brings the reality of this book to life as we are encouraged to imagine the scribe having to physically copy word for word from the original document to its completion. Even the sophisticated skeumorphism of the digital age cannot replicate the smell and touch of the original work.
Patrick W Connor does not completely validate the death of the book in its linear form but does suggest that hypertext will change the way we read. A “residual bookness” (Connor, 21) will continue to pervade the digital age but the globalized accessibility of digital textualities will continue to challenge a Luddite such as myself. It is with a certain amount of hesitance then, that my search for the infallible “catalog of catalogs” (Borges, 112) continues regardless.