THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Great Conversation Interrupted. Kindle, Annotated.

I needed to look up a quote in Hamlet the other day, and took down a volume from my library to search for it. This particular Shakespeare set, limited to 1000 copies and bound in green linen, was purchased by my grandfather in 1910, just five years after he landed in the U.S., eager to master the language. The number stamped in the first volume tells me he was the 176th subscriber to this Bigelow, Smith & Co. edition, with notes and comments from "three centuries of Shakespearian scholarship."

I fan the pages of Hamlet, and come across notes made by my grandfather, and from both my mother and my father, who both taught Shakespeare to high school students. I even find some of my own annotation, some in pencil, some in ink. Reading the play, I have entered once again into a conversation across the generations, noting who was interested in what, seeing phrases and explanations that someone once thought particularly valuable. They are valuable once again.

I realized that next year would mark the hundredth year the Bigelow Smith set has been in the family. It was the favorite of my kids, too, and they used it in school. In a few years it is likely to be used by a great-great grandchild of the original purchaser. I hope the next generation feels free to add their notes to the text in their own time.

Which brings me to my current digital musings. When we buy a copy of a book, we own that copy. When we purchase, for almost as many dollars, a Kindle or other electronic version of a book, we have not really bought a copy of the book. So what is this thing that we have purchased? I guess we can think of it as the right to read the book. And we own that right to read as long as we have a device we can read it on. When we grow tired of this current version of the Kindle, or if it is stolen, or we accidentally drive over it, we will need to buy a new Kindle so we can reload those things that we have purchased the right to read.

What about our notes that we might like to make in those books that we have purchased the right to read? We can annotate them, but if we remove them from the Kindle, our notes will vanish too. If we want to hand down those notes, to initiate a conversation among the generations, Kindle may not be the best way to go about it.

It's an interesting time, as digital technology makes the arts simultaneously both more accessible, and more ephemeral. Thanks to high-end audio sites like HD Tracks we can download the equivalent of master tapes to our computers and listen to reproduction that is closer to the original recording than anything previously possible. Through direct streaming from Berlin, we can have a regular, thrilling concert experience with the Berlin Philharmonic, as I recently described. People all over the earth can go to theaters and see live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera.

And then there's this strange thing that's happened to books, which almost takes us in the opposite direction -- farther from the source. Once of the miracles of the Jewish Torah was the insight of the earliest authors that the necessity of reproduction of the printed word posed perhaps the greatest threat to the authenticity of the Torah. The incredibly strict rules for reproduction of the Torah mean that it has not changed in three thousand years. It is still precisely 304,805 letters long; the scribes are closely trained and supervised. If a single error is found, including decorative treatments of certain letters, it must be scraped away and corrected. With this care, anyone reading from the Torah is assured they are reading as if from the original.

At the other extreme, with the Kindle, we are not even seeing the font or typography of the original. When I was editing Dear Dear Brenda, the Love Letters from Henry Miller to Brenda Venus, Wm. Morrow, the publisher, invited me to design the typography for Miller's voice and for Brenda's voice, to make it easy for the reader to know who they were reading, with no other cues necessary. I wonder how that will survive being Kindled. When I worked with Vincent Bugliosi on his book Drugs in America, we were challenged by his need to simultaneously address two readers: the lay reader (for which we used black ink) and the careful legal reader (gray ink). We were trying to avoid footnotes or long appendixes, so the two colors of ink, interspersed, was our best solution. I wonder if that will Kindle?

This is what's so intriguing -- while digital technology brings some of the arts closer to us, it seems that digital technology has the potential to turn books into ephemera.

The recent preview of Carl Jung's Red Book in the N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine gave us a heads up on what may be an important old/new work, which Jung wrote in the early part of the 20th century and has been locked up in a safe for the last few decades. What struck me, as I'm sure it did many others, was that this book was more than just important text. The Red Book is brilliantly hand-written and astonishingly illustrated. The book is, first and foremost, an object. I don't think Kindle can bring it as close to us as we would prefer.

I also wonder how today's Carl Jungs are faring with their books? Are they writing in bright red leather folios, or drafting and redrafting on their laptops? Can you imagine locking up a laptop or even a serial memory stick for fifty years, and then hoping someone can still read it?

And then I pick up Volume IX of that almost hundred year-old Shakespeare set, browsing the Tempest, Act V, Scene i. It all comes clear for me: "How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in 't."

I add an annotation next to the text that inspired Huxley. Might be good for another 100 years.