Thursday, March 11, 2010



So, What IS an ISBN?


The International Standard Book Number, or ISBN is one of those contemporary ideas which were supposed to make an Art into a Science using mathematics, or at least numbers. Aside from being an ugly mark on an otherwise well-designed dust jacket, it is the means by which publishers' warehouses and, finally, bookstores can control large volumes of inventory by treating each item as an entry line in a ledger (or digital device) rather than an actual physical object. This is a function that used to be performed by the Title and Author's Name, as well as other pertinent information about the Publication (Publisher, City, Date, Edition, etc.) as well as some judgement about Type or Category, all of which required some "sense" of what the book was. Now all that has been condensed into a string of integers.

Once upon a time, the books themselves were their own filing system: each being assigned to a certain position on a topically arranged shelf by procrustean individuals known as "librarians." These gentle souls thought their main function was to assist the reader in locating the information that would further his education. In order to do so, they needed to have some knowledge, themselves, about the content and quality - such a very un-capitalistic notion! Now, of course, we know that books are just another form of Product, the purchase of which is the ultimate goal, having very little to do with education or even curiosity, beyond that which can elicited by Marketing.

The idea of having a unique and descriptive number for every title published is not, in itself, a bad one. The Library of Congress has been attempting to do that for just the titles produced in the United States as have the other national libraries of the world for their own literary outputs. In principle it is a sound and historically worthwhile enterprise. The problem arises when the same concept is applied to the very messy world of commerce, with reprints, rip-offs, revisions, short-runs, review copies, translations, condensations, collections, pirate versions, in a multitude of different languages, being produced in major cities around the world. Even an infinitely expandable system begins to break down.

Worse, though, it creates the illusion of having solved a problem which, in fact, it only causes to grow more acute: every piece of writing is not equal to every other, every publication of that work varies in quality and accuracy, fakes abound and falsehoods proliferate! Yet each is stamped with a number which gives it equal validity to all the rest. At a time when critical judgement has become a dire necessity, we've applied a system that makes no judgement at all. Ultimately, what we will get is a thin uniform gruel of digital scribendi perfectly suited to the Kindle and the iTablet. Unless we can find a way to evaluate quality without enforcing hierarchical value judgement, we are doomed to drown in a sea of digitally encoded pablum.

As an aside: Updates of the bookstall have been interrupted (temporarily I hope) by my ISP's inability or unwillingness to provide broadband service on anything like a regular schedule. Thus an upload of data from the letter I to mid-M has been held in check for 24 hours, awaiting what is laughingly referred to as 3G Service. I pray this post will make it through!

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