The String of Pearls Project – The Journey of Colonel Jeffery

As part of our String of Pearls project, we made a tour following one of the characters on their travels throughout the first 10 chapters of the book. Our group tracked Colonel Jeffery as he sailed around the world, and ended up in London, where he investigated the disappearance of his friend and shipmate Thornhill at the hands of the demon barber Sweeney Todd. See our Prezi tour here.

Most of the work that I did on this project involved finding the points of interest from Chapter 3, in which Colonel Jeffery wanders around the vicinity of Fleet-street while he looks for his lost comrade Thornhill. What I learned from this exercise was that Rymer gives quite a bit of detail for most of the locations in London, which wasn’t necessarily so evident on the first read through. For example, when Jeffery comes through the Temple garden and onto Fleet street, the location is described as “the entrance to the Temple, in Fleet-street, opposite Chancery-lane.” Looking at a map from the time in that area, this description is just as good as having an address to pinpoint the exact place. There was only one location that was difficult to find, and that was “the watch-house of the district.” There were no other details given. However, since Jeffery’s path from Sweeney Todd’s shop to the Oakley house would have led him near the Old Bailey (a courthouse), it seemed probable that a watch-house would be in the same general area. Using this assumption, I placed the location on the corner of the street nearby.

One thing that became clear as we tracked Jeffery’s movements on his journey around the world is that the farther he got from Rymer’s home (London), the more hazy the details became and the more general the locations were. In London, Rymer gave the names of specific cross-streets and landmarks, whereas in the Indian Ocean and on the coast of Africa, there were no details that allowed us to pinpoint specific locations. This makes sense, though, since most of the story takes place in a neighborhood that Rymer knew well, whereas he probably wasn’t as familiar with the coast of Africa or the Indian Ocean.

The Bytes Will Destroy the Book

…he pointed with his right hand to the printed book lying open on his table, and with his left to Notre Dame, and casting a mournful glance from the book to the church:

“Alas!” he said. “This will destroy that.”

­– Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris


By Kriti Shankar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


In Notre Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo made the claim that the book would destroy the Church – that “this will destroy that.”  With the rise of the printing press and the easy dissemination of information to the public, he felt that the need for the Church as an institution of knowledge was destroyed.

Two centuries later, this same argument is now being made about e-books and libraries.  Michael S. Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, makes a case for the superiority of e-books and what he perceives as the growing irrelevance of libraries and physical books:  “Knowledge doesn’t come from climbing up and down marble stairs to hunt for books in the dozen or so libraries of large universities or wading through the stacks looking for that obscure volume your bibliography absolutely requires.”

In an interview with Dr. David Coury, Professor of Humanistic Studies at UWGB and director of the Green Bay Film Society, he gave a number of examples of “this will destroy that” attitudes over the years.  In the film world, Dr. Coury spoke of the “death of cinema” and how every major technological change brought about a fear that nobody would go to the movies anymore.  First it was TV, then VHS, then DVD, then Netflix.  But the evidence shows that these technologies haven’t affected cinema attendance.

Dr. Coury also points to “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses) as an example that sparked a lot of “this will destroy that” attitudes.  It was thought that MOOCs would revolutionize education and render the University obsolete.  By giving free access to online video lectures from prominent professors at major universities, the barriers to education were being torn down.  But the University was not destroyed.  According to Dr. Coury, going away to school is about more than just the classroom experience.  It’s also about the social aspects, the emotional development, and the connections that are made.  He claims these things can’t be learned by “watching videos from your parents’ basement.”

There are a number of solid examples of “this” actually destroying  “that.”  In music, cassette tapes destroyed 8-track, CDs destroyed cassettes, and streaming and other digital music solutions are in a process of destroying CDs.  In film, DVD destroyed VHS, and Netflix now seems to be chipping away at the relevance of DVDs.  In the computing world, there is a constant process of “this will destroy that,” with every new advancement in storage media or processing power making the previous generation of technology obsolete.

But despite all of this, it seems that Netflix hasn’t destroyed cinema, streaming music hasn’t destroyed concerts, MOOCs haven’t destroyed the University, and the book hasn’t destroyed the Church.  Why?

One reason given by Dr. Coury is the social and emotional aspects of these institutions.  Going to the cinema is about more than just seeing a movie; attending Church is about more than hearing stories; going to a concert is about more than just the music.  In each of these cases, there is a deeper social aspect tied in to the experience that can’t be replicated by the options presented by the newer technologies.

That is not to say, however, that these institutions are static and unaffected by the presence of the newer technologies.  With each change in technology, so too is there a change in these institutions.  They adapt.  Perhaps they are trying to accommodate new ideas and technologies, or perhaps their response is simply a means of survival.  The Church is not the keeper of knowledge it once was and the theater is no longer the only way to see a movie.  In response, they have had to adapt their purpose to accommodate a changing public.

With all of this in mind, do e-books present a threat to the library?  Do Michael S. Hart’s claims of the superiority of e-books over physical books hold weight?  Jeanette Winterson does not think so.  “Ebooks are not an improvement; they are an addition.”  She goes on to say, “We all know that browsing an index is nothing like being in a bookshop or a library.”

By Tom Murphy VII (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Dr. Coury points to the aesthetic aspects of reading a book that you don’t get on an e-reader.  He gives the example of reading a bedtime story to a child – a large picture book would certainly give a different experience than a small e-reader.  But are the aesthetic aspects enough for the survival of the book?  Or is it simply nostalgia that fuels these arguments?

Perhaps the questions of “e-reader vs. book” and “e-reader vs. library” should be kept separate, as there are quite different arguments to be made in each case.  In the case of libraries, Dr. Coury feels that they are not just a place to house books, but rather they are a “repository of knowledge.”  He points to the community-building aspects of public libraries, with free access to not only books but to computers and the Internet, breaking down barriers for those who might not normally be able to afford it.  Libraries today do not look the way libraries looked 15 years ago, he says.  And 15 years from now, they will look different still as they continue to adapt to new technologies.  In this way, the library has a lot in common with the Church, the cinema, the concert, or the University.

But the book seems to have less going for it in terms of setting it distinctly apart from the e-reader.  The differences between book and e-reader seems to mirror the differences between cassette tape and CD, or between VHS and DVD.  Perhaps today the aesthetic aspects and the nostalgia are enough to keep the book alive, but as the younger generations who grew up surrounded by electronic devices become adults, will they feel the same about books?  Or will books be seen as an antique from their parents’ pasts?

If the trends in other technologies are any indication, the e-book won’t be able to bring the library down.  Like Hugo’s edifice, the library will continue to adapt, to mold its purpose to a rapidly changing world.  The book, however may not have a place in the world of the future.  As e-book technology continues to advance and begins to fulfill every role that the physical book once did, it seems likely that books will become obsolete.  I think in this case, this will indeed destroy that.