John Updike caused a stir at BookExpo America in Washington, DC last Saturday. According to the Washington Post, “without warning, he opened fire on the technorati.”
“I read last Sunday, and maybe some of you did too, a quite long article by a man called Kevin Kelly,” he began. He proposed to read a few paragraphs so that listeners who hadn’t seen the article might “have a sense of your future.”
The reference was to a piece called “Scan This Book!” in the previous week’s New York Times Magazine. (The title echoes activist Abbie Hoffman’s 1970 provocation, “Steal This Book.”) In it, Kelly described — in the messianic/hyperbolic style favored by Wired, the magazine with which he has long been associated — the inexorable march toward an “Eden” in which the totality of human knowledge will be downloadable onto a single iPod-size device.
Reading further, Updike noted Kelly’s assertion that “copy-protection schemes” are helpless to hold back the technological tide. “Schemes,” he repeated sarcastically, drawing a laugh. As his audience well knew, the Association of American Publishers filed suit last year on behalf of five major publishers alleging that Google’s library scanning project is a massive and flagrant violation of copyright law.
Updike went on at some length, heaping scorn on Kelly’s notion that authors who no longer got paid for copies of their work could profit from it by selling “performances” or “access to the creator.”
Unlike the commingled, unedited, frequently inaccurate mass of “information” on the Web, he said, “books traditionally have edges.” But “the book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets.
“So, booksellers,” he concluded, “defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity.”