Why John Updike Is So Wrong About Digitized Books

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Sean Wilsey is the author of "Oh the Glory of It All," a memoir that has just been published in paperback. He is also the coeditor, with Matt Weiland, of a new book about soccer, "The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup."

At the recent Book Expo America, before the breakfasting majority of America's booksellers and editors, John Updike prophesied the digitization of all books into an online "universal library." He was prophesying by proxy, as the original prophet was Kevin Kelly, one of the founding editors of Wired magazine. But while Updike conveyed Kelly's premise with conviction, he had no intention of celebrating it: rather digitization, he told the audience, was a "grisly" scenario, one that would lead to readers treating books like music, downloading and cutting them into playlist-like "snippets." The word "snippets" was delivered with an East Coast snap — teeth into an October apple — for maximum onomatopoetic effect.

As I listened it occurred to me that only someone who's never downloaded music, or someone who doesn't read, could imagine a direct correlation between the tracks of a recording and the paragraphs of a book. Comparing word snippets to playlists is cynical propaganda, or at best an error in logic that could only be made by a person who doesn't love and live with them both: Elitist and wrong, or ignorant and wrong, depending on your point of view. Musical playlists, like film soundtracks, are about using songs to create an aural atmosphere, a soundtrack for life. Listeners want to be DJs, and music moves fluidly between the public and the private. Reading, by contrast, is always private.

Still, there was something else beneath the surface of the speech that caught my attention. Perhaps it was the fact that only a writer who hasn't actually been edited for decades could describe the act of removing snippets from his work as a "grisly" endeavor. Taking ideas and combining them with other ideas in order to create a new and more effective chain of thought — isn't that called editing? If universal electronic access to books mean that readers will now tackle the editing themselves, Mr. Updike, in his century spanning career — comprising, by my casual estimate, perhaps 20,000-bound-between-covers-pages — could have cause for concern.

But of course readers don't want to become editors. What they want, what I want, is for what I'm reading to have already undergone the sort of editing that allows reading to be an intimate, thoroughly immersive, deeply pleasurable activity. Who is going to DJ "Freakonomics," the opening chapter of "The Mill on the Floss," and one of Mr. Updike's golf poems into some grisly new work? The only people who will do something like that are the same people who stand most to benefit from bookscanning: writers! Book scanning is for us.

Completing my first piece of journalism, in 1998, I downloaded a public domain translation of "The Brothers Karamazov" and searched it for references to a minor character called Marfa Ignatyevna, in order to add some texture to a discussion of the small but significant town of Marfa, Texas, a place supposedly named after this woman who "obeyed...yet...pestered" her "honest and incorruptible" husband. Having an active text version of the novel — which I also owned and knew — provided me with one of those extremely rare moments of pleasure, clarity, and completion in the act of writing, when the puzzle of an idea clicks firmly into place with words on the page. I searched, I found, I quoted.

What I never have enough of as a writer is time. Writing, for me, is all about finding the time to write. Far from being "grisly," a universal library of scanned and searchable books would be the greatest imaginable gift to writers and future readers alike. It will help us do what we do. (Age quod agis, in scannable Latin....)

As Updike spoke I looked from him to the crowd, and the scene was evocative of something I couldn't quite place. Then, as he came to his conclusion — "booksellers, defend your lonely forts" — it hit me: a white haired gentleman trying to halt something new because it runs against something established, urging the retrograde upon people who should know more than any others that retrogression is patently not in their interest. Novelist as colonist! A governor speaking to his soldiers. Guard your lonely forts indeed.

Publisher's Weekly claimed that a "standing ovation" followed the "lonely forts" line. I can report that it was a reluctant standing ovation. A single woman stood immediately, while most others sat for as long as possible, until her solitude grew unbearable, and they joined in to relieve her embarrassment.