A World of Speculation

I enjoy bloggers with humor, who find profundity in daily events, who read the ingredients on the Can ‘O’ Rhetoric that is served up on every side.

Especially good at this is James Lileks. He finds meaning in the great icons—architecture, publishing, advertising, commercial symbolism—they tell about us.

One of the most fascinating passages I ever read was in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which the villain (whose name escapes me) discusses the difference between the Cathedral and the Book. Written in the 19th century, that time of technological optimism, about the 14th century, a time of technological transformation, the narrator seems to come down firmly with the “pro-book” position.

The Cathedral told stories in stone, goes the argument, but the book will triumph over the Cathedral, because the book lasts. If you destroy one, there are thousands to take its place. It goes out to the people, whereas people must come to the Cathedral. (It’s been a long time since I read the book, and I’m not clear which points Hugo made and which I made in my own head in thinking about his. Nevertheless, this is a blog, not a research paper . . . .)

I love books, and I try to write them, and the smell of paper is like perfume to me. But—

The printing press brought a new way of experiencing the world—as a repetition. Every book that goes through the printer is (within the limits of the equipment) exactly the same. The decorations are the same, line for line and dot for dot. The words don’t get edited between copies 100 and 10,000. It’s the basis for mass production and the basis for computers. For all the good that comes of these things, there’s a regimentation in them, a means of putting people into boxes that don’t necessarily fit.

I understand the value of a trademarked sign, but a strip mall in Alaska looks the same as a strip mall in Miami. Our clothes all look alike, from Moscow to St. Louis.

Again, without denying the gains, I rue the losses.