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The Book and the Index Card

A fantastic piece in The New Yorker on a new publishing initiative called Inkling to make books more web-friendly by dividing them up into small chunks similar to index cards. Books are hard for search engines to get into — they are big and baggy to borrow from H. James — so by slicing them into smaller, more discrete parts, their knowledge becomes more accessible. They call it “link juice.” (I love this term.) “For a reader searching the Internet for information,” Inkling founder Matt MacInnis explained, “the word rank is going to be terrible for a bag of words of book length.”

What’s beautiful about this initiative is the way it ties into the long history of the relationship between books and index cards. As I write in my book, Nabokov’s Laura, which was put out as a book consisting of detachable note cards, is one of the more ingenious representations of this relationship. Books are stackable objects that consist of stacked pages that can be stacked on shelves. Such stacks are valuable because they are both additive and also detachable. Books belong to a modular system of knowledge that is still with us (heaps, piles, and stacks are all key structural concepts for computing). The note card is just one more stackable technology.

Nabokov

Initiatives like Inkling are important for making books more integrated into how we digitally search for information. As many scholars feel, and no doubt general readers, the stuff that ends up in books often doesn’t get found because that’s largely not the way people look for information anymore. Books are valuable as tools of reading because of their unconnectedness, the way they allow us spaces of repose. But this is also a disadvantage when it comes to contributing to new knowledge and the sharing of information. Books allow you to get lost, but they also tend to get lost these days in the conversation. Creating new ways of integrating the medium of the book into the web is decidedly a good thing.

But it also begs the question of whether the sliced and diced book will retain any sense of structural integrity. If the book’s vertebral nature — it’s upright stackability — has been key to its meaning for us (cumulative, but also finite), what happens when you can start clicking from one  book’s “card” to the next? That’s not a “book” anymore, just a bunch of loose-leaf pages.

Walter Benjamin imagined that the end of the book began with the rise (or return) of the note card — who needed books if you just moved from notes to write books to notes taken from books? Benjamin was drawn to this power of dispersion that belonged to the unbound forms of cards, cinema, and photography. But he didn’t live to see just how dispersive digital media could be. As I write in the book, I think there is value to thinking about technologies that articulate a certain unity at a certain scale, that pull in as much as they push out. Media like the book give us a sense of distinction and uniqueness to ideas, how they change and evolve across time and space. A universe of note-cards probably would not.

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