Google Books and the End of ‘The Art of the Publisher’

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Google, child of Alphabet, has won (for the moment) the right to scan and make searchable the world’s 129,864,880 books (roughly 30 million have already been scanned). The decision in the case, brought by the Authors Guild, has been met with a mixture of boredom (it has been ten years, after all), layman legal posturing about fair use, and indifference to Google Books’ conceptual affiliation with the broader project of publishing. The basic takeaway from the majority of commentators — who are almost exclusively tech writers — is that we’re too far down the techno-libertarian rabbit hole to worry about Google Books overmuch. The whole of the project just feels normal to us now.

The linchpin question of the case — whether or not Google Books’ scanning and “snippeting” of published works should be understood as sufficiently transformative — is one I’m ill-equipped to answer. I’m not a legal scholar, and fair use law seems to me a disordered and hybrid discourse, one as torn between print and post-print logics as the case it’s meant to help adjudicate. Nevertheless, there are other important questions posed by the Google Books project, and they’re not all legal in nature. Some have to do with the way we orient ourselves to knowledge in the first place.

Given the broad questions posed by Google Books — questions we’ve forgotten over the last ten years — it’s bittersweet that Roberto Calasso’s short new book, The Art of the Publisher, should appear as the trial seems to be ending. Calasso, whose erudition and prose style can be oppressively high-end — like a luxury car in a liquor store parking lot — is nonetheless a brilliant theorizer of publishing. And he should be. He comes from a family of well-known academics and writers, and he was one of the first employees at Adelphi Edizioni, a storied Italian publisher of high-quality “middle European” literature.

One of the pleasures of reading Calasso’s book is seeing how a series of disparate short essays forms an urgent (but not self-serious) polemic, one with a substantial argument about how publishing should be done and what we’ll lose if we stop doing it. This is to say that he takes the book’s title to heart: publishing is an art (like writing or painting) that both preserves the self and extends it.

Calasso begins the book by hearkening to Aldus Manutius, whom he considers “the first to imagine a publishing house in terms of form,” by which he means that Manutius, with his introductions or epistulae that linked his books together, was the first to see “that all books published by a certain publisher could be seen as links in a chain, or segments in a serpentine progression of books, or fragments in a single book formed by all the books published by that publisher.” All Calasso is saying is that the art of the publisher is the careful, thoughtful, and skillful linking together of all the books published by a single publisher, so that each is as necessary and purposeful as a chapter in a great novel. In other words: your favorite publisher is likely your favorite publisher because it releases books that are part of a considered sequence. Great publishers, so to speak, are deliberate. And they have an identity.

But the books published by artful publishers aren’t linked in a predictable way. In fact, one way to ensure that you never weary your readers is to publish what Calasso calls (following Roberto Bazlen) singular books. A singular book is “one in which it is clear that something has happened to the author and has been put into writing,” a book “that had also run a considerable risk of never having been written.” Books like this, by virtue of their singularity, have a way of rippling across languages and historical periods, and this in turn strengthens the publisher’s abovementioned form or series. If you manage to publish Kafka, for example, the orbits of the rest of your series will realign by virtue of the massive change in gravity.

Calasso discusses other indispensable minutiae of the book object: the jacket copy, for instance, and the cover image. Above anything else, though, it his concept of the art of the publisher as linking singular, isolated objects together across eras and languages — across libraries, you might say — that motivates his generous, even-handed complaint against Google Books.

For Calasso, the problem with Google Books is not that it is an assault on the book itself. “The book has already encountered difficult times and has always endured,” he writes. “No one, after all wishes it much harm. At worst, there’s an attempt to treat it like an endangered species, to be corralled in a large natural park.” It is rather that the project of “universal digitization” was from the beginning an assault on the culture of the book, on the way that books are used. On this he is forceful:

[A] fairly rigorous attempt is being made to get rid of a whole way of knowledge that is closely connected to the use of the book. More precisely, to get rid of a certain way of relating to the unknown. Here everything becomes harder and more risky. But why should the book have these powers? Why does the new digital sensibility find it so irritating, almost offensive as an object?

The obsession with prying the text away from the hands of the dead author — with resuscitating it by way of an aggressive program of linking, tagging, clustering, citing, indexing, annotating — is one that attacks “the isolated, solitary, and self-sufficient existence of books,” that treats them as “asocial beings that have to be digitally reeducated.” He then compares Kevin Kelly’s famous manifesto on universal digitization to a bondage manual.

Calasso is skeptical about the value of stripping millions of books of their covers in order to scan and “weave” them into culture through linking and tagging. (“And what if that book had wanted to unweave itself from everything?” he asks.) And he’s convincing on one point that is often lost in discussions of digitization: it’s the reduction of content to relatively depthless links and connections that is dangerous and strange. The creation of one single book out of all the books in the world is, in other words, a way of steamrolling and destroying their ability to form connections from isolation, a way of flattening them beyond the flatness of the page.

There is a difference, then, if you take Calasso’s point, between the intersubjective knowledge accrued through reading books and the global, liquid film of information promised by universal digitization. Still, no matter which side you come down on in the debate over Google Books, it should be obvious that what Calasso calls “the obliteration of publisher identity” is the logical extension of the project. If what Calasso says is true of the publisher’s identity — that it is a matter of form, of publishing singular books as if each were a chapter in a great book — it becomes obvious that the automated “weaving,” the cross-linking of books into a single mass of text, threatens the art of the publisher. If all books become one book, what will be the source of a publisher’s identity? Nothing, really, except their success on the market:

Today, as shrewder agents well know, everyone competes for the same books and those who win distinguish themselves only because, by winning, they have bought a title that will prove in the end to be a moneymaker or a disaster. Then, after a few months, whether it has been a success or a failure, the book in question is lost in the twilight of the backlist: a meager twilight that occupies an ever smaller and irrelevant space…

To Calasso’s credit, we’ve seen over the last two years the establishment of a new equilibrium between print and digital, one that forced many commentators to rethink what it is that readers actually want from books. Now that Google Books is free to move forward, it’s probably time to do the same for the project of universal digitization. Is this how we want to relate to books? To libraries? Calasso’s point, at least, is to consider that the links and tags fetishized by digital culture are parasitic on the depth of singular books. (They literally mean nothing without them.)

Or think of it this way. This month Shaquille O’Neal visited the New York Public Library, admitting that it was the first time he’d been to any library since the invention of the internet. When Shaq learned that 52 million items are housed in those walls, he promptly replied: “Fifty-two million items? This isn’t a library—this is the inside of the Internet!” Exactly.