Google promises everyone on line an online Christmas present. The popular Internet search engine announces that it will make available on the Web volumes in the research libraries of Harvard, the University of Michigan, Stanford, Oxford and other sources of collected knowledge, including the New York Public Library.
What we will be able to read on our computer screens will be determined by copyrights and technological expertise. Michigan's library alone contains 7 million volumes, which would fill a bookshelf 132 miles long. That's far more than a marathon run of knowledge. Google says it will offer Internet readers unrestricted access to books in the public domain. Short excerpts will be made available even from copyrighted material.
The latest promise for googling is mind-boggling. The promise coincides with the digitizing of many international libraries. We'll have to update McLuhan's famous dictum that the medium is the message. The message has become the medium, making it possible to read and write vast amounts of the written word for pleasure or to conduct arcane research without leaving home or office.
We've known for a long time that the Internet could be the turning point in the democratization of learning for the millennium, commensurate with the impact the printing press made on the previous millennium, offering a range of information and creative thinking for anyone curious enough to seek it. But will this affect how we utilize and understand what we read?
Google can provide the written word with greater speed, but speed is of little use to wisdom that requires rumination, reverie and reflection. You can't scribble in the margins of a computer screen. If the environmentalists see electronic libraries as saving trees, they should calculate the number of pages downloaded to computer printers. High tech always arrives with mixed blessings.
Let's not forget that the Enlightenment, driven by an explosion of scientific information along with its processing through the scientific method, led many of the "enlightened" to believe new inventions would drive intellectual reasoning inevitably toward progress and perfectibility, enabling mankind to gain control over nature. But greater access to information merely enabled the same old sinners to use new information for better and for worse. Man retained his capacity to do harm as well as good.
The Luddites among us cry "bah humbug!" It's tempting to join them. New technology is not necessarily neutral and we need to understand that. The way we read has an impact on how we write, think, create and publish.
In "The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age," Sven Birkerts raises questions that digitized libraries make ever more crucial in a world that has changed from moving type to the finely filamented electronic scrim. "The formerly stable system - the axis with writer at one end, editor, publisher, and bookseller in the middle, and reader at the other end - is slowly being bent into a pretzel," he says. "What the writer writes, how he writes and gets edited, printed, and sold, and then read - all of the old assumptions are under siege."
While Birkerts touches the commercial aspects of this transformation, he especially wants to know - and so should we all - how electronic communication will change not only the engagement between the reader and what's read, but the "feel" of our encounter with the written word in an electronic culture. His reflections compel us to think about the way the digitized world transforms our experience with fine literature.
On reading "Don Quixote," do we become the windmills that the errant knight attacks? Does the screen impose an obstacle for empathy as the windblown Cathy cries out for Heathcliff on the remote moors of "Wuthering Heights"? Would Virginia Woolf now ask for a computer of her own, or would she prefer penmanship?
How we read determines how we see ourselves in relation to the universe. When the scrolls of illuminated manuscripts painstakingly copied by the monks in the Middle Ages were updated to a flattened page and bound together in a black-and-white book, our perceptions changed profoundly. With historical hindsight we see how the centers of power of church and court were radically changed as the reading audience expanded independently, no longer needing mediators of religion and royalty.
"As the world hurtles on toward its mysterious rendezvous, the old act of slowly reading a serious book becomes an elegiac exercise," writes Birkerts. Unless, of course, you're on a holiday of the season, and can take the time to pick up a splendid old favorite and turn the pages at leisure. That might make for a Merry Christmas indeed, which is what I wish for my readers, one and all.