On the other hand, the more alert among you will have noticed that “The Book I’m Reading Now” at the top of the blog was Elizabeth Eisenstein’s groundbreaking work, “The Printing Press As An Agent Of Change”. It’s a magnificent analysis. But it’s a huge reading task – well over 700 pages, very dense. It’s not a casual read; you do have to work at it.
I first read it about ten years ago, while I was doing the intensive research work for The Magic of Reading, but it seemed like a good idea to read it again. The first time, I was more concerned about reading issues per se, but this time it struck me that I’d watched ten years of Internet development since then – and taken part in eBook, eMagazine, eNewspaper and Web development myself.
This is why I like to read books more than once. The book you read is never exactly the same as the author wrote. Because the “real” book goes on inside your head, you always bring your own life experiences, perceptions and state of mind to it. And those are constantly changing – which means you never read the same book twice.
It’s also a good reason to ignore the critics’ view of any book, movie, piece of music or art. Their background is very different to mine – or yours…
There was another good reason for re-reading Eisenstein. A recent blog post by Clay Shirky talked about “thinking the unthinkable”, predicting that the death of newspapers is now certain, although no-one yet knows what will replace them. Shirky referred to Eisenstein, pointing out that the first result of Gutenberg’s technology was a fair amount of chaos, and no-one could have predicted exactly how things would turn out.
Well, it was very interesting. I found myself reading Eisenstein in a very different and much richer way than before. Here’s an example. One of the most influential early printed books was Vesalius’ De Humani Corporus Fabrica, a textbook on human anatomy.
I kept coming across references to it in the text. So much so that I really wanted to take a look at it for myself. In pre-Web days, that would have been a task. But I found a link to a beautiful Flash-based version created by Northwestern University in Illinois, complete with a high-resolution picture of the title page – a great piece of art in itself. Check out the pickpocket being caught in the act in the bottom right of the picture – and the coat-of-arms with the three weasels (Vesalius’ hometown was Wesel in Germany). Jokes that still work after almost five centuries…
When I came across references to logarithms – invented by John Napier, a fellow-Scot (but with a better grasp of mathematics than me) – I could go on to Wikipedia and find out more.
In other words, my printed book became an interactive multimedia experience which was far bigger and richer than the original. It took me a lot longer to read – but it made the book come to life, and I learned a lot more.
This raises some interesting questions. For instance, I would have liked to have had Eisenstein as an eBook on my Kindle. It’s such a heavy, awkward monster to handle – especially when reading in bed.
However, on Kindle as it is today, that would have made for a much poorer experience – no Web browsing for links… And I’d have hated to see the mess that Kindle’s small screen and poor graphics would have made of the title page of De Fabrica…
I came across a blog post the other day by someone who had recently read Eisenstein and said it didn’t really get interesting until after the first couple of hundred pages.
He must have been reading with his eyes (or mind) closed. Here was this woman, Elizabeth Eisenstein, single-handedly taking on most of the Renaissance historians, art historians, theological historians etc. of the past couple of hundred years – and eviscerating them. I kept seeing pictures of Joan of Arc in my mind (almost the right period). This is one brave, tough lady, who by herself changed the perception of the impact of printing on the world.
As I said, don’t expect an easy ride – it’s hard work. But if you stick with it, hopefully like me you’ll end up awestruck. Read the combined volumes 1 and 2 – it’s available (but a pricey $61.20) on Amazon in my Recommended Books widget.
BTW, for the past couple of months I’ve been running FireFox as my default browser. Since I run it on Windows, I get ClearType. And it really is very good. I prefer it to Internet Explorer for one main reason – I can “skin” Firefox so the browser chrome is less intrusive on the eyes. I’m using Anycolor, and the dark gray menus, address bar etc are a lot better. Someone also quietly fixed the bug I complained about a few weeks ago. When you put FF into FullScreen view, the bottom of the screen used to leave uncleaned garbage pixels at the bottom – some kind of repaint bug. Anyway, it’s gone now, and FF behaves really well going into and out of FullScreen.
Internet Explorer’s a great browser. But it seems to me that the team I left really has its work cut out if they intend to recover lost market share. If I was a FireFox user, I could see no good reason to switch back to IE – especially if I’d installed Firefox 3.5. And it seems readers of this blog are voting with their feet in much that way – 48.1% of them are Firefox users, with IE users totalling 26.96%. If those figures start to be repeated across the Web, then IE is in deep trouble…