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April 10, 2012

The digital meets the medieval

Digital books have opened new avenues for personal discovery by providing direct access to original sources

I have a confession to make. It has been more than ten years since I have read a book cover to cover. The Internet changed many things around us in this time. But most notably there has been one change within the mind –- the inability to persist with deep reading. Every attempt at reading a book invariably becomes a multi-tasking adventure of multiple Google searches on related topics or accompanying side narratives, coupled with the occasional tweet succumbing to the irresistible urge to share an epiphany, followed by a blog to showoff newly acquired erudition. This was before the e-book and the tablet. Now there is not even the attempt at reading a book cover to cover but merely the pretence of a shallow reader. The need for speed and breadth has left comprehension, depth and recall far behind.

But the digital book revolution has done something to the amateur reader that no number of corner bookstores and friendly neighborhood public libraries could perhaps do. If the Internet collapsed distances to make geographical separation redundant, the e-book has collapsed time to make historical separation between the author and the reader redundant. Google has contributed the most to this phenomenon, far more than any other digital ecosystems, with its comprehensive collection of digitally scanned books from the late 1700s to the early 1900s, most of which are free of copyright restrictions. The e-book has also levelled the field between the amateur and the professional, making access to original source almost ubiquitous. It has opened new avenues for personal discovery without the proverbial middleman.

For me, the most impactful of these personal discoveries has been the rich body of English prose translations of ancient Indian texts by Manmathanatha Datta. Little to nothing is known of Manmathanatha Datta’s personal life. Had it not been for the Internet and the digital book, Datta’s memory would have been restricted to the odd academic researcher. Now, his translations have a new life and a digitally assured posterity in a manner that he himself would never have imagined.

Photo: Dayna Bateman

Google’s collection of books authored and published in India during the 1800s and early 1900s can perhaps be described as the digital meeting the medieval to re-discovering the Ancient.  From Sanskrit to English translations of the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Puranas to the Persian and Arabic to English translations of the Pre-Mughal and Mughal era conquests, my personal digital library today spans a time continuum of Indian history that in a previous era would have been nearly impossible to compile in a single library. What makes this digital book collection special is the accompanying digital collection of British era’s first hand records starting with the earliest of records in the late 1600s. What enriches this digital adventure of personal discovery with limitless possibilities is the window it opens into the ancient with catalogues of Sanskrit manuscripts found in Royal libraries in that era. One such cataloguing exercise of Sanskrit manuscripts in the library of the Maharaja of Bikaner in the 1880 resulted in a 700-odd page book.

While Google’s Digital Book Archives bring a distant era closer to us by opening a window, they also leave us with sadness over an era of literature that will nearly be lost to future generations unless the digital efforts are taken to the next level.
From the National Archives to the Archaeological Survey of India’s Digital collections, government-led efforts at digitising ancient and medieval texts give us access to some of these documents. But as with any governmental intervention, the digitisation is haphazard and inadequate. With clunky tools and highly restrictive interfaces, it makes the digital discovery experience arduous and inefficient.

Usability and user experience are completely missing across all the digital archives resulting from the efforts of the various agencies of the state and multiple Indian universities. Among the private interventions, the one that stands out is the website ValimikiRamayan.Net (http://www.valmikiramayan.net). It is fully hyperlinked and key word searchable. It has organised the content by pulling together all the three layers essential for a modern day appreciation of an ancient Sanskrit text -– the original Sanskrit in Devanagari, the English transliteration of the text and the English translation.

Between Google’s rich collection of Old Books that is fully searchable with the ability to embed and clip and sync across mobile devices and dedicated websites like ValmikiRamayan.net, private interventions are making an impact to the amateur reader that is far superior than what is perhaps available to the professional within state-run digital libraries and archives. These private interventions are only scratching the surface here with an even larger body of knowledge waiting to be digitised from all other Indian languages.

In a digital future with reading habits increasingly shaped by e-books, self-publishing and mobile devices, it is hard to envisage a hark back to the days of cover to cover deep reading. But one thing is certain. Reading will no longer be a single pass, linear activity. You may shallow read a book in several iterations, going deep on a specific event or episode, tapping into several hyperlinked and digitally cross-referenced knowledge sources — in the process creating new knowledge and insights, captured within blogs and tweets. The personal library of the future will not only be digital but uniquely personal.

One casualty of this inability to persist with deep reading is the mental barrier against new works of fiction. Iterative shallow reading seems well suited for non-fiction and older works of literature while newer works of fiction remain half-read and forgotten. Maybe fiction writing needs to undergo a paradigm shift to adapt to the change in my reading behavior. Or maybe I am suffering acute attention deficit syndrome?

Either way the digital adventure continues with a new discovery every other day!


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