Under my byline

Paper to pixel: new life for old books

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 24 June 2007

Revisit the classics, without visiting the library

Into each reader’s life comes that moment when they have to ask: “What was the line I liked in that book I read last month…?” And there one is usually stuck, unless a quick nap can dredge that line out of the memory.

There are other recourses, of course. One could query a knowledgeable colleague, go to the library and look the book up again, rifle through your notebooks if you keep them, or ask one’s spouse or offspring whether they recall the subject of your enthusiasm at the breakfast table a month previously.

Or, you could turn on your PC, find the book on the Internet, open a complete text file of it and search out that missing line or idea, in five minutes flat.

Ebooks or e-texts are far from a novelty. In fact, they have been through a rapid cycle of evolution from the “future of publishing”, nemesis of traditional publishers and death of the printed book, to what they are now: a useful and very occasionally lucrative sideline to mainstream publishing.

Paper still rules. The ordinary paperback has millennia of evolution behind it. It is just about the closest thing to a perfect product that any home contains, apart from a spoon. It is portable, efficient (hundreds of thousands of words in a stackable item a couple of inches thick), has packaging that both protects and informs, aesthetic quality and flippability (which serves the original search engine — the eye — very well). Treated well, a book will last for centuries. Not even our homes will last that long.

But books have one great flaw. There are too many of them. There may have been a time when a library could aspire to hold all the published writings of a civilisation (as the Ptolemaic library at Alexandria did), but that time is long gone. Time itself is also going. Who has time during working hours to commute across the city to use a good library?

The Internet revolution offered a solution to this problem. Vast numbers of books could be digitised and made accessible to anyone anywhere. They would be read on computer screens or special display devices.

Internet advocates soon found that few people wanted to read whole books this way. Paper books were far more convenient. And fewer still were willing to pay for the privilege. Since scanning and digitising books on a large scale is expensive, and authors and publishers still want their money, the rewards for early e-publishing efforts were meagre.

There are, however, two kinds of books that nobody needs to pay to use: modern works whose copyright has lapsed or been waived, and very old works. Copyright rules vary across the world, but generally copyright expires 50–70 years after the death of the author (60 in India).

George Orwell’s 1945 classic, Animal Farm, for instance, is now in the public domain. In the US, all books published before 1923 are free of copyright and in the public domain (that is, anyone can use them in any way they choose). The second category contains everything from Hammurabi’s law code to Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The most intensive consumers of such literature, of course, are those with a scholarly interest. As individual volunteers, and through some institutions, they have placed thousands of works on the web for anyone to use, in a great number of languages, including Indian languages.

“Postgrads and researchers go to the Web first,” says Shonaleeka Kaul, a scholar of classical Sanskrit who teaches history at Miranda House, Delhi University. “If the library system itself were sound, putting texts on the Web would have far less significance.”

Unlike in the US, “there are no interlibrary loan (ILL) facilities” among Indian libraries and archives, says Sadan Jha of Sarai, an urban studies group. And archive staff in India can be obstructive. Using online collections of sources allows him to “bypass all these things”. E-texts “cannot replace existing archives”, but “a keyword search can give unexpected results”. Looking up Punch editions from the 19th century, he found to his surprise one from Lucknow in 1878. “Suddenly you feel quite delighted,” he says.

Biswamoy Pati, a history lecturer in Sri Venkateswara College of Delhi University, uses e-texts from the online Trotsky Archive in his teaching, and he takes printouts for his students to use.

Are online texts reliable? “Mostly one is familiar with the texts beforehand,” says Jha, so accuracy is less important than looking at “how one is generating an argument. Beyond a point, an element of doubt remains with each document.” Besides, says Shonaleeka Kaul, the copyright-free “19th-century translations of Indian texts are the only ones around”.

Even if one is not a scholar, there is great value to be drawn from books available on the Internet. Not so long ago, a classical education was considered crucial for a gentleman. Rather than endless lines of Homer or Sanskrit, what a 21st-century gentleman might gain is a familiarity with the founding works of many literatures, without having to pay for them.

Even though the French essayist Montaigne wrote that “our minds are swamped by too much study, just as plants are swamped by too much water or lamps by too much oil”, in our age of super-specialisation, there must be some value to knowing a little bit of everything, and thus knowing one’s world a little bit better.

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