The Author of Everything

March 27, 2011

This post is the seventh of seven posts about the future. Caveat lector. A story to round it off…

Every morning I wake up in my house in Vishaka and walk via the aloo poori stall on Shyamji Krishna Varma Marg to Pitampura metro station and there I board the Line 1 train, changing at Kashmere Gate and again at Connaught Place and out over the Yamuna river to Noida, the location of my employer, Shiva Digitisation Services Inc. The metro is new and bright despite the sand that settles on the staircases and as I ride it I can look down into the streets where time travels on rickshaws and bicycles, on foot and in taxicabs. We all experience time at different rates, but in Delhi it is close to being visible in its contrasts: time washes down the streets like currents in a river, faster round the corners, sloshing into shops and tea stalls and growing thick with algae and broken kulhars in the gutters.

When I arrive in Noida I cross four streets and climb seven flights of stairs to the office where I sit with eighteen other people in the largest room in the building, which is laid out as a series of partitioned desks which we have mostly broken down so that we can see one another and so that the breeze that comes down from the once-bright fans in the ceiling spreads and flows around us; and there we take out our books.

Shiva Digitisation Services Inc is a digitisation house; that is, we make books—texts—digital, receiving paper and transmuting it, making ebooks out of textbooks and non-fiction stories and histories and theses and scholarly works and novels.

This is how it works: when a publisher wants to make an old book new again, to lift it off the page and enter it into the electronic consciousness which increasingly resembles the very air we breathe, he ships it to us, Shiva Digitisation Services Inc, of Noida, UP, encased in bubble wrap and cardboard so that no harm may come to it.

If it is a cheap job, we take the book and we place it on the guillotine, where we sever it from its spine, as the lowly have always, eventually, done to the most high, and then we feed it page by page into the sheet scanner, and expose it to the machinations of the Optical Character Recognition software, and out comes an electronic text, something that resembles language when properly decoded but is in fact a long string of binary, almost atomic, almost purified.

And while this purified text may be cleaner and more speedily read by a computer than its physical ancestor it is nevertheless riddled with errors to a human eye: false punctuation marks, run-together words and letters, like m for nn and E for &, and spaces or their opposite where none should be.

So if the client pays a little more we poke the text a corresponding and appropriate amount, correcting the most obvious flaws, catching the odd stray capitalisation, breaking the lines in the right place, turning false caps to ornaments, and so on and so forth. It is usually enough.

But if the client is particularly demanding—and few are—then we employ the ultimate measure: double-keying. In this method the original book is preserved, and a higher level of accuracy is achieved. Double-keying is literally typing, and Ravi and I take a copy of the book each, and for a couple of days we sit and type out the book itself, reinhabiting the author’s world for those hours, bending over the keyboard as he or she did, following his or her plot and the inner and outer lives of their characters, flying above the landscape of the text in a way that few readers, lost in the thickets, do, because we are copyists.

And our work is doubled up because inevitably a few mistakes creep in, a miskey here, a forgotten conjunction there: the hardest part is not descending to earth again, and becoming lost, like a mere reader, in the narrative. So when we finish our two versions they are checked one against the other and these minor errors are erased and this is enough to produce as near as we are ever going to get to a perfect copy.


Except Ravi and I have an arrangement, which I suggested some time ago, and to which he acquiesced, although I do not mean to claim that what results is entirely my own doing: Ravi has made suggestions too, although his personal tastes run to the bizarre and esoteric, almost religious, and are frequently too bald, too obvious, too wild, or otherwise unsuitable for inclusion.

We have an arrangement to make changes. Just one or two—for now—in every other book that passes through our hands, or so, in every other book we copy, just a couple of small things. And because these are agreed upon, because we have an arrangement, and the diff check comes up clean every time, our clients never know—they never read the books that we pore over—and so, gradually, we introduce into the world a new literature, subtly altered and remade in our own imaginations.

In our books, perhaps, the change may be as small as the name of a location: the protagonist turns left rather than right, down this street and not that one, enters this particular building instead—a regular, nondescript shop, hotel or office—but a building that did not previously exist until we invented it and which will live now in the minds of the book’s readers even as the old one falls into ruin and one day is gone.

Or perhaps the change will be a little more personal. A minor character who, mentioned in passing as having passed away, only a small figure, a throwaway sentence to the original author: we will let live. Instead of death, he will inherit an estate, travel abroad, find a new life for himself in a far and distant place where the casual violence of the story cannot touch him. Sometimes a name, used or forgotten in the right place, is enough. Sometimes erasure; sometimes addition.

In this way we make our mark on the history: a keystroke or two, a slight omission, an elision or vague reference to something new, which will live on, and in years to come such things may be the crux on which other references, ideas, people and places, real and imagined, may rest. Nothing that lasts, lasts untouched. Each thing bears the marks of its use, the fingerprints of those who have, however briefly, lived in and through it, no matter how seemingly transient, ephemeral or intangible.

And does it matter? Because what have they done with these books, these people? These readers? They have read them and each of them have taken them in their own way, have read them sideways and backwards and glancingly, each differently, so that they have made of them a thousand books, one for each reader, and after them they have piled them up in stacks and arranged them on shelves and they have become the bricks of their selves—unopened again, unlived-in. They have moved house and packed them into boxes, into cars and lorries, and carried them into new places and unpacked them on new shelves to gather dust again. Or they have gone away for a time and the bricks have sat in silent storage rooms, in garages, in attics, for years, for decades, until on their return, perhaps never, the cases are broken open again, and these bricks, these corpses, are shuffled and set out and displayed in the light again, to fade and grow brittle. Or they have mouldered in libraries until passed out to skips and second-hand shops where the odd lucky one is picked up and handled, and perhaps a few orphans are rehoused but the great mass languish, starved of attention, unknown to the world of which they are unknowing, until they too decay and fall apart and are no more.

But my books: my books live again, are made new, are reanimated. I make them strange and fresh again, no longer breathing the dead air of old trunks and times but awakened in a new dawn and changed.

We do not own our literatures, any more than we own our culture, or history, or the place where we are born or live now or are buried: we merely rent them, and during the times for which they are in our possession we make of them what we can, and then we pass them on; they pass away and out of our lives.

And the greatest gift we can give to them is to breathe into them; to animate them in our minds and make them dance a little. I merely do with the words themselves what we all do in our heads: bend them to our own lives and circumstances, make them relevant and connected to our world, charge them with my own imagination. And here, now, dancing is enough.

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