Print Is Dead

New York Public Library Lion

The NYC library, the Beaux Arts-style one on Manhattan’s 42nd Street, the one with the giant lions out front, the one featured in the opening sequences of the movie, “Ghost Busters”. This one is slated for demolishment or renovation, depending upon which side of the debate you come down on. I sorta heard this on NPR. This library’s seven stuffy stacks of books that once dripped with ectoplasm are slated to be closed and their as yet un-slimed volumes are to be shipped as far away as Princeton, NJ. Opponents of this move complain that this flagship Carnage library is being denigrated to an internet café. Proponents claim that these changes will actually save the books from their untimely demise. The crux of the question is what is more important, the collection or the vessel. Where the truth lies, maybe only our ghosts will know for sure.

Vernor Vinge’s “Rainbows End” is a Hugo Award Best Science Fiction Novel. Set in the year 2025 it postulates many near term scientific advances. One of which is the physical demise of the San Diego State University library. Some Google-like firm has been contracted to digitize the catalog. It proceeds to do this by grinding all of the books to chaff and then parsing the texts using some giant super computer. This is certainly a most dystopian view of the conjunction of the printed word with the digital age.

Not every book is a tome, no matter how old it might be. I am not arguing for the burning of books, but rather their dissemination through digital means. Slate has been disseminating their “lex•i•con VALLEY” podcast. Other than a few past gender related hits that turned out not to be about sex, most of their post have revolved around nit-noids of English grammar. Not so for lucky episode number 13.

In this episode the detective work of history grad student Ben Schmidt is used to determine the historical authenticity of the dialogue in the TV shows, “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men”. In short, Schmidt is able to correlate the complete scripts of these TV shows with his historically contemporary databases of written words and ascertain any anachronisms within the scripts. Schmidt is not the first one to enjoy this sport. Almost from its first episode critics were picking out anachronistic slang from Lord Grantham’s speech. Through technology, Schmidt has raised what once was just a pursuit to that of an avocation.

Some of Schmidt’s discoveries speak to a fundamental shift in society’s mindset. For example the erroneous substitution of the more modern phrase, “I need to” for the more contemporarily accurate phrase, “I ought to”. One area where these TV shows do accurately capture contemporary speech is on the subject of technology. Schmidt postulates that the introduction of new technology is an easily remembered historical event and flows seamlessly into the collective consciousness. The one exception to this rule is the telephone. When Don Draper says, “You can’t put the Jaguar representative on hold”, it would have been more accurate to have had his secretary ask the Jaguar representative to “hold the wire”. Even though the phones then had hold buttons, no one spoke of being put on hold. That came later.

Janine Melnitz: You’re very handy, I can tell. I bet you like to read a lot, too.
Dr. Egon Spengler: Print is dead.
Janine Melnitz: Oh, that’s very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. Some people think I’m too intellectual but I think it’s a fabulous way to spend your spare time. I also play racquetball. Do you have any hobbies?
Dr. Egon Spengler: I collect spores, molds, and fungus.