This is a re-publication of an article I posted on June 7, 2015
About a year ago I found out that I could not carry half a tree worth of paper to class anymore. There’s just so much of it: if it’s not I writing and printing it and carrying it to the professor, it’s the professors writing and printing it — and giving it to me to carry. I addition, there are numerous books, especially in theology, that were written centuries ago, and consequently have no copyright on them, so they’re freely available in electronic format. Prime Kindle food! So I invested painfully heavily in a Kindle DX, a format in which I can carry the equivalent of several sets of Encyclopedia Britannica around in 8.2 ounces. Financial pain in exchange for physical pain — trust me, that’s always a bargain. But the Britannica is only a hackneyed phrase for equating a number of words with physical weight: what’s more important, is that I could carry around the famous Harvard Classics — the Harvard five feet of shelf space — in my one hand. Now, in the humanities, that’s something! There is one drawback, though, and it has to do with citing from Kindle-based documents while writing papers. There’s a debate going on about the lack of page numbers on Kindles and in other electronic book formats. Here’s what’s happening: professors, when grading papers (I assume) look at the page number cited in the student’s paper, take up the corresponding book, and check the reference. Calvin says on p. 384 of the Institutions that faith is like a box of chocolates. Mmm. I’m pretty sure Gerhard has been at the Amarula again — Calvin said no such thing! If Gerhard had been citing from a Kindle, he’d have to give a location number, and if it was a website, it would be worse: the accepted method of citing from a website is not to give an indication of the exact location at all — after all, web pages don’t have pages, right? Now people get passionate over this. Some professors insist on page numbers, and in many cases I get their point completely.In seminar-type classes, for instance, you really want to have everyone on the same page during discussions — pun fully intended. But the world is moving on, and page numbers are fading away into the past, and we have nothing with which to replace them yet. We better find something, though.
Page numbers are arbitrary
I bin thinkin’ about this. Paper page numbers are not perfect. First, page numbers are arbitrary. Even though the words of an author may be identical in three or four different editions of his or her book, the page number for the the place where the text “Sally put on her new plastic boots” occurs may be different in each edition. In database technology, we would call the page number a key to the piece of text, and it wouldn’t matter if the format of the key were arbitrary, as long as the relationship was not — in other words, the same page number, even if it’s WJ82394WWK27834, must always lead you to the same piece of text. But my analogy is bad, because one page number contains many different word combinations.
Kindle locations could theoretically migrate to paper books. In fact, they already have . . .
The Kindle location number system fully solves the reference problem. Picture this (Sicily 1922): you have three editions of the same bad novel. Through the Kindle system, location number 144 has been allocated to the phrase “Sally put on her new plastic boots.” In fiction on paper, the location range could be printed at the top or bottom of every page, and if you knew the snippet about the boots was numbered 144, you could find it anytime as fast as via a page number. Why? Because it works almost exactly like a dictionary, except that you¬† don’t have to remember the alphabetical sequence of letters. But where it gets really exciting is in ancient, very technical, or seriously literary texts: there one could have the location numbers printed down the margin or even inside the text to make locating a particular phrase a snap. Come to think of it, we have one rather popular book where that has already been done — it’s called the Bible. And who would have authority to allocate these numbers? Well, just number the darned paragraphs sequentially! Start at 1 and stop at n., which is where you fall off the far edge of the book. In fact, I’m making the case that the invention of page numbers can be regarded as an unhappy accident that has caused many more problems than it has solved. Just think, in textual criticism, how much it would have helped if the spot where Descartes was worrying about an evil spirit fooling him into thinking he was sitting at his warm little stove was known as paragraph 291? Whether you have Barnes & Noble’s little 4 inch classics pocket book or Monsieur Descartes’ handwritten manuscript, in which he laboriously numbered his immortal paragraphs, that passage would be numbered the same. I could call up a friend and say: “Descartes 291!” And the friend would say: “Yes, I’m worrying about a deceiving spirit too today.” I defy you to do that with page numbers.
Quote of the Day: Not all chemicals are bad. Without chemicals such as hydrogen and oxygen, for example, there would be no way to make water, a vital ingredient in beer. –Dave Barry
While writing this, I was listening to “The Words That Maketh Murder” by PJ Harvey