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Ednote

Editor's Note, July/August 2009

What Books Are For

By David Skinner | HUMANITIES, July/August 2009 | Volume 30, Number 4

I have become a regular purchaser of old books, and as I pull these worn-out tomes from my mailbox I wonder if anyone else is still reading these particular works. One I recently bought is by a well-known writer, and its subject is a well-known politician, but it seems unlikely that anyone other than a biographer will plunge into its decades-old reporting. And yet the book is still interesting, still edible you might say, like some fruit that never spoils.

As scholars consider all the new things to study as more and more books are made available online, I think not of what synthesizing or correlating may result, but of the original hopes that stirred the creation of these books, how each one was intended to be read. And still wants to be read. By me, by you, by everyone.

Of course, for many books the search for readers is nearly hopeless, whether or not they are online. Meanwhile, other books, rare, exotic birds, remain desirable and are pursued with great passion, such as scrawled editions from the personal libraries of literary greats. An article in this issue reports on the digitization of Herman Melville’s marginalia from the author’s own scattered collection.

And what about the book itself, that expensive paper-and-ink technology, in an era of cheap and infinite digital space? Journalists used to joke that the slogan “All the news that’s fit to print” actually meant “All the news that fits.” But online it all fits, with space left over for hundreds of readers to append lengthy reactions.

How will books adapt to this spacious, cacophonous future? Steve Moyer reports on the Institute for the Future of the Book from the floor of the 2009 BookExpo in New York City. Bob Stein, the founder and codirector of IF, is reimagining books as online meeting places. He expects readers to abandon their solitude to socialize in the digital margins of popular books.

Some books are popular, yes, but little read even by individuals who claim to know them. As my own feature shows, this was the fate of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which sits on library shelves everywhere. Published in 1961, it was widely denounced in magazines and newspapers for its libertine, even anti-American, ways. Its critics, however, made scores of errors in describing its contents. As late as 2007, mistaken claims about what this dictionary says were being repeated (and added to) by a prominent young writer.

Great authors at least exercise their own special claims on our attention. Literary critic Morris Dickstein mentions several of them—along with several forgotten worthies—in this issue’s Conversation, which ranges from the culture of the 1930s to the decline of political correctness.

Also, this year is the centennial of Wallace Stegner, author of the novel Angle of Repose and numerous other literary works. The poet Kenneth Fields, a faculty member in the creative writing program Stegner founded at Stanford University, recalls the influential and somewhat difficult man and, just as important, his books, which are likely to be around for a long time, still wanting to be read and still rewarding their readers.

David Skinner is editor of Humanities.