In the latter case I am talking about the book as technological phenomena. First though, to an absolutely amazing new book, housed nonetheless in a very old technology.
From The Front List
The Whale: In Search Of The Giants Of The Sea by Philip Hoare. Ecco - Harper Collins. Nonfiction/Biology. Hardcover. 453 pp. ISBN: 9780061976216. $27.99.
I pit its speech against infinite silence-
And a notion of eternity floats to mind,
And the dead seasons, and the season
Beating here and now, and the sound of it. So,
In this immensity my thoughts all drown;
And it's easeful to be wrecked in seas like these.
-from The Infinitive by Giacomo Leopardi. Translation by Eamon Grennan.
Note to booksellers. Shelve above title in any of the following ways: Historical travel writing. American history. Marine biology. Or just wrap a rubber band around it and Moby Dick and sell as a package deal.
You think that I'm kidding but the reality is that Philip Hoare has written a magic book. It is of that inspiring breed of book that is as much a call to adventure as it is a compendium of impressive research. His subject is manifold but boils down to two essential investigations.
On the one hand there is the whale, at once the leviathan of primordial nightmare and the gentle beast whose very being an empire was built upon. On the other hand there is that most powerful, and ponderous, work of American fiction. By name: Moby Dick.
Both are large and impressive subjects and to deal with one you will have to deal with the other. The difference, and certainly the genius, in Hoare's biography of the whale is that it filters the book through the beast and not vice versa. In this manner of approach Hoare has created a sort of ideal literary criticism of Herman Melville's masterpiece. Through an amalgamation of fable, lore, biased affection and historical reality The Whale is exactly what Saint-Beuve would have wanted in a book about a book. That is to say it approaches the author(s) of Moby Dick, both Melville and the whale in autobiographical terms.
Hoare's approach is, to put it mildly, comprehensive. Let's start with the illustrations, which can be described only as diverse and profuse. Then there is what the text accomplishes beside the illustrations. Beyond the mystery of the whale's vertiginous biology (I had no idea that sperm whale's can kill with sound, for instance) there is also the bloody history of whaling, an industry which fueled American ascendancy as an economic powerhouse. The Whale is replete with an exhaustive etymology of nearly every word derived from whales or whaling. Hoare is smart to soften the melancholy philosophy of the deep and the jargon of whaling times with his own experience with whales and, well, the books about them.
Perhaps he took that lesson from the headache some of the passages of Melville's masterpiece are known to create. They are infamous ones, that resemble more so a dictionary than the great American novel.
Stylistically speaking, Hoare's book is immense. He writes with a grand air, which borders on the high romantic. I haven't read any of Hoare's other works and I would like to now. I wonder if he always writes this way. I suppose one must error towards the immense when addressing whales. Not unlike John Bonham's drum solo in, uh, "Moby Dick".
It is not hyperbole to say that the reader of The Whale, which won Great Britain's most prestigious nonfiction prize, will find themselves wondering if Hoare has left anything out. The combination of a mysterious subject and a tireless researcher on a labor of love is nearly unmanning. Twice I had fitful dreams of whales and boats while I read this book. This too is no exaggeration.
Some of that may be personal. I grew up in southern Florida, with the ocean less than a mile away from my home and a canal in my back yard. Whether through the contemplative hobby of fishing or the vain occupation of catching, I have always loved the uncertainty of the liquid realm. One day while fishing with a net for bait fish a ten-foot alligator rose from the black water of the canal. Uncertain is perhaps too weak a word for the mixture of emotions a nine-year-old boy feels when confronted with storybook dragon.
Water obscures. Whether in the form of the leaf tannin in swamps or the light scattering sublimity of the ocean deep, water is at its most potent when its contents are inscrutable. We are visual beings and nothing is more terrifying, or exciting, as the power of the sea to hide even its most impressive beings. Water is essential to the myth of the whale, and Hoare is powerfully aware of this.
When I close my eyes, I see those massive animals swimming in and out of my vision, into the blue-black below; the same creatures that came to obsess Melville's ambiguous narrator, 'and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale'. On my own uncertain journey, I sought to discover why I too felt haunted by the whale, by the forlorn expression on the beluga's face, by the orca's impotent fin, by the insistent images in my head. Like Ishmael, I was drawn back to the sea; wary of what lay below, yet forever intrigued by it, too.
-from The Whale
The deep blue is made fearful by the implication of the leviathan, not the other way around. Hoare admirably captures something of Moby Dick's brooding atmosphere and does so, perhaps not by coincidence, by somehow capturing a staggering amount of the whale and somehow fitting it into a book.
Like I said before. It's somewhat of a magic trick.
From The Back List
The Future Of The Book edited by Jeffrey Nunberg. Afterword by Umberto Eco. University Of California. Linguistics/Technology and Society. Trade Paperback. 306 pp. ISBN: 9780520204515. $34.95.
Let us meditate book people.
He did not despise the new, but used it wholeheartedly; he did not reject the old social institutions, but found new ways to adapt them, and when thwarted one way, found another, odder but still functional, way to use them; and he did not tarry to prophesy a new age of learning and wisdom. Most of all, he did things. The larger scheme within which he did them was not widely imitated, nor was it imitable. Even to say this is to reveal waht is so often wrong about our expectations of ourselves and our cultural heroes: we dream of strong leaders, men on white horses, people who change history. Those are the fools and the demons of our past. The most effective change is that wielded by those who do not expect to create or manipulate a closed system, but those who do recognize that change takes place in an open system, in one where it is the accumulation of shrewd and collaborative actions of the many that generates the unexpected harmony.
-from Trithemius, McLuhan, Cassiodorus by James J. O'Donnell.
O'Donnell is writing of Cassiodorus, a failed visionary whose chief trait of excellence was that, as O'Donnell put it, "he solved nothing." If you cannot find social, political or directly book related wisdom in the above quote then, well, you just aren't paying attention.
The Future Of The Book was published in 1996 and in this sense it has purchased an air of authority about it. Much of the historically applied questioning of the book's title has eerily come to fruition. As the first printed books met resistance from the monasteries on economic grounds (and a few salient academic arguments) so too has the electronic age of the book met with resistance from the publishing community.
While the monks decried the new technology, the mechanisms were being put to use in back allies, by business people and merchants who saw the fiscal potential of the new way of making books.
This notion of the business man scuttling the book from its rightful caretakers is a cruel one. Crueler still to think about as Jeff Bezos and the e-book players (good band name?)seek to "create or manipulate a closed system," but essentially his role is the same.
Difference is he might yet succeed.
That is the most startling aspect of this series of essays: we seem to handle changes in media format the same way every time. The rise of blogging mirrors the rise of the pamphleteers, both preceding more official use of the format. It is strange to think about but the pamphlet preceded what we think of as the book, in its "authorial" format we take for granted.
With pamphlets it was a scandalized aristocracy that sought to rid the world the world of them. It was this aristocracy that passed laws concerning published materials. Laws that exist today. If someone hands you a pamphlet on the streets and it doesn't say who it was paid for, well, you could, well, not sure who you turn them in to but it is supposed to be illegal.
In turn it is a corporate buttressed meritocracy today that slanders the lowly blogger and a publishing industry (a vast generalization, I know) that is loathe to approach the question of format, just like the monks of yore detested the scandalous mutability of the printing press.
I am not taking a stance here. Merely recommending a book that might shed light on the situation. We've been through it before, you see.
After this reading (the third in some essay's cases) this book again I am left with one very uneasy question left unanswered. Or perhaps unconvinced of an answer might be more accurate. The question is: Are the times different?
Or is the business-minded iron grip on emerging technology the same thing as a Council Of Toledo? In this case the vitality of the apex corporation replacing the health of ecclesiastical texts.