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Page 2: If on a Winter’s Night a Computer

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 4, May/June 2013
pp. 2-23 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0074

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Librarians, gaze into the crystal ball and you will see rows of computers—and empty shelves.

The first fully digital public library just opened in Texas. With 150 e-readers, 25 laptops, 25 tablets, but no books, San Antonio now has bragging rights to having launched the first bookless library system in America.

The local judge who launched the library got the idea for it after reading a biography of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple.

“If you want to get an idea what it looks like, go into an Apple store,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

The library and the commercial retail space are becoming increasingly alike—places lined with screens and busy browsers.

In the late twentieth century, while many took the opportunity to take stock of the state of the book—and to offer prognostications as to its future—novelist and short story writer Italo Calvino chose to refrain.

Given the hyperintensification of change in the world of books, perhaps he was right to not proffer prognostications.

In 1984, Calvino was asked to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University the following fall. His wife Esther tells us that from the first of the year, “he did practically nothing else” than work on them. He chose the title “Six Memos for the Next Millennium”—and completed writing five of six planned lectures before his untimely death.

Calvino was preparing for his trip from Italy to Cambridge, where he intended to complete writing his final lecture, when he was admitted to a hospital in Sienna. His wife said that he had not yet even packed his lectures. She found them lying in “perfect order” on his writing desk.

Calvino’s memos on the art of writing are masterful and provide a lens through which to view his own writing. But what is most interesting about them concerning the futurology of the book is what he chose not to say about it.

He described the millennium that was soon to close as “the millennium of the book, in that it has seen the object we call a book take on the form now familiar to us.”

But what he didn’t see—or didn’t want to see—was that technologies of the book would soon result in major changes for it.

“Perhaps it is a sign of our millenium’s end,” wrote Calvino, “that we frequently wonder what will happen to literature and books in the so-called postindustrial era of technology.”

Still, although he recognized his lectures as an opportunity to comment on this topic, he said “I don’t much feel like indulging in this sort of speculation.” “I’m not here to talk of futurology,” continued Calvino, “but of literature.”

Fittingly, as Calvino prepared his lectures—and duly avoided talk of futurologies of the book—Steve Jobs was just beginning to lay the groundwork for the future of the book.

In 1984, Apple released the first Macintosh computers. Though these machines were short on memory and could not be upgraded (that is, more like humans than computers) they made up for this by being easy to use, particularly for word processing. With very little training, one could learn to write, save, and print out papers on them.

Calvino had been asked over a decade earlier by IBM to see “how far was it possible to write a story using a computer?” The year was 1973 and Calvino was in Paris when “it wasn’t easy to gain access to data processing equipment.” The resultant story, “The Burning of the Abominable House,” was an example of ars combinatoria and “a challenge to his own mathematical abilities.”

According to his wife, the story took a great amount of time to complete, not because the computer was slow in processing his data, but because he carried out himself “all the operations the computer was supposed to do.”

Critic Jonathan Usher traces Calvino’s interest with new technology as far back as the late ’50s and early ’60s when he came to the United States as a recipient of a Ford Foundation grant—and convincingly argues that If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979) represents...



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