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The network of the book

By Laurie Bennett

January 28, 2010 at 5:59am

All the excitement over the iPad, Apple’s multimedia competitor to the Amazon Kindle and lesser foes, set us to thinking about books and networks.

We’re not talking about wireless access to digital titles, but about the book as an object that passes from one person to another.

Sarajevo Haggadah
Page from the Sarajevo Haggadah

Geraldine Brooks wrote a memorable novel a couple of years ago about just such a web. People of the Book describes the travels of a 14th-century Jewish manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah.

The book is unique not for its words, which are replicated in other haggadot read at family seders. The value is in its handwritten passages on parchment, its illuminations of saffron, lapis lazuli and malachite.

Its creators, possessors and protectors include the enslaved Moor who paints the illustrations, a Catholic censor in Venice, an anti-Semitic bookbinder in Vienna, a Muslim librarian in Bosnia, a young conservator in Australia.

Although the story is fiction, the haggadah is real. Before publication of the novel, Brooks, who covered the Bosnian war as a Wall Street Journal reporter, wrote a moving factual piece for the New Yorker (subscription required).

The great gaps in the story of the real codex gave Brooks license to create a fictional account. Yet in both versions, the Sarajevo Haggadah is the hub of a network.

Compare this to the new order imagined by the e-book seller, where each copy has an audience of one. (Although Barnes & Noble enables Nook owners to share, most titles have not been deemed “lendable” by their publishers.)

Amazon’s intended network looks like this:

Unless you hand off your Kindle to a trusted loved one, the book stops here.

But the words and ideas don’t. Unlike a hard copy, a digital book doesn’t have to survive dangerous sea crossings or thieving invaders - major threats in Brooks’ story.

In both fact and fiction, repressive governments are an obstacle. Countries such as China erase opposition web sites, seize computers and arrest dissident bloggers. But in a worldwide network, the flow of ideas can’t be blocked by book burning (another menace in People of the Book) or by web site shutdowns.

The transition from paper to digital has also brought a shift in valuation. Unlike its central character, the worth of Brooks’ novel is not the object but the narrative.

As a reader, I’ve never held a print edition of People of the Book. I listened to an audio version on a long car trip and then downloaded a copy to my Kindle when I decided to write about it.

I consulted online reviews, YouTube and Brooks’ web site. Now I am posting yet another in hundreds of thousands of web entries.

This is the new network of the book, an expansion, rather than a replacement, of the old. The new network encompasses mainstream reviewers (not all of whom liked People of the Book), bloggers, search engines, videos and even map makers.

And Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has purchased the movie rights. Someday soon, you may be watching it on your iPad.

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