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Dr. Parker’s Latent Library and the Death of the Author

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

A philosophical inquiry
by Chris McManus
University College London
2002 Ig Nobel Biology Prize winner (for his study
“Scrotal Asymmetry in Man and Ancient Sculpture”)

The death of the author has been a fundamental constant of post-modern literary criticism ever since Roland Barthes’ essay of 1967. Now an economist, Professor Philip M. Parker, has turned the entire question on its head. The really interesting question about someone who has been described as “the most prolific author in history” now concerns the trickier question of whether, in any meaningful sense, this author—or what Barthes would call a “scriptor”— has ever actually been alive.

Books used to be simple things. An author writes, a printer prints, a bookseller sells and a reader then reads what the author wrote, the printer printed and the bookseller sold. Such a description is worlds away from the 142,152* titles which Parker and his ICON Publishing Group have published. Even if the 47-year-old Professor Parker had written solidly, 12 hours a day, 365 days a year, for the past 20 years, he would have had to produce a new title every 37 minutes to create such an oeuvre. Such productivity is over two orders of magnitude greater than that of the Guinness Book of Records’ most prolific author, the South African writer Mary Faulkner (1903-1973), whose 904 titles hardly begin to compete with Parker.

Not that it can be said that any of Parker’s books have been “written” in any usual sense of the term. Instead we find thousands upon thousands of books that indeed have Parker’s name on the cover, but the author not only can never have written, but in all likelihood can never have read them all (and if each book takes just 37 minutes to read, then it would take 20 years, 12 hours a day—you get the idea!). More problematic, in most or perhaps even nearly all cases these books seem never to have been printed, seen by their ostensible publisher, or seen by a single reader. Maybe there are even titles that have never been clicked upon on Amazon.com. Now that really is post-modern.

The Question of Existence
Do Parker’s books exist then? Perhaps, as Jean Baudrillard would have put it, “These books did not take place.” Let’s take at random one of Parker’s typical exotic and yet utterly paradigmatic titles, The 2007 Import and Export Market for Wool Grease, Fatty Substances Derived from Wool Grease, and Lanolin Excluding Crude Wool Grease in Brazil. Nowhere on Amazon is there any sign that anyone has ever bought this (never mind added it to their Wedding Registry or Wish List). Neither is it in any university or other library that I can find. If you want the book (and for a mere 28 paperback pages it is expensive at $56.00) then, and it seems only then, will a computer program be activated, a text generated, a printer will start printing, a binding will be attached and a paperback volume will emerge ready to be read. But did The 2007 Import and Export Market for Wool Grease [and so forth] exist until that moment? There lurks a philosophical conundrum. As with the tree that falls to the ground in a lonely forest, unheard by any sentient being, can it be said to make a sound? Or in the koan’s 21th century form, if such a title evokes from Google the response “did  not match any documents,” does it exist?

The Question of Value
A few thought experiments show the plurality of potential problems lurking here. Could I, for instance, register millions of titles of possible books with Amazon, stating that they are available if readers want them, but not actually provide any of them until someone coughs up their $56? More specifically, could I register as titles, The {n} Import and Export Market for Wool Grease, Fatty Substances Derived from Wool Grease, and Lanolin Excluding Crude Wool Grease in Brazil, where {n} takes all possible values from 2009 to 3000? And can I count all of these titles as part of my scholarly output?

Hazards
What if Parker’s program goes wrong (and software bugs are one of the few certainties of our world)? Who would be responsible if, instead of generating a lucid account of wool grease and lanolin, the program errs and some unfortunate lanolin expert inadvertently receives between his paperback covers some random text, such as 28 pages of Victoria Beckham’s That Extra Half an Inch: Hair, Heels and Everything in Between? Would Parker or his program then claim to be the author of that as well? Does Parker check every book before it is dispatched, ever vigilantly watching  for glitches? What if a software glitch results in 28 pages endlessly repeating the immortal words, “and yes I said yes I will Yes”? Caveat emptor, inevitably, but perhaps also, author beware! What are the limits of the author’s responsibility? Does he, as so many authors do, “assert his moral right”, etc., or does he perhaps have no moral rights? What if the book should—we are but speculating, of course—contain a libelous account of the President of Brazil, which would then be gossiped about and disseminated throughout grease-speaking circles all over the Amazon region? Would Parker be responsible for that? And how might Parker avoid an inadvertent fatwa through software error, when one of his books perhaps talks of the burgeoning market for pig products in certain countries where pigs should be vanishingly scarce?

Unstoppability?
These problems would not even disappear with the actual death of the supposed author, for Parker (or rather his programmatic instantiation) could presumably continue to produce ever further volumes long after his demise. How will copyright laws cope with such works? And does Parker perhaps have another program, at this moment on the digital stocks, for generating interviews with his posthumous self? Will those interviews perhaps interact with yet further Parkersoft products generating the verbose products of an infinitude of virtual journalists, together producing a million-fold computer-generated articles for an exponentially increasing number of latent, specialist journals, devoted to such specialist markets as the Brazilian grease industry, each number commenting and speculating endlessly on the past, present and future of almost anything Brazilian and greasy except, it need hardly be said, that pariah of the afficionados, crude wool grease? Perhaps the one certainty is that Google’s web-crawlers will cope, if necessary, by buying up ICON Publishing Group. O Douglas Adams, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Note
*Some sources say Professor Parker’s total now exceeds 200,000. The question “How many books has Philip M. Parker writer?” deserves to be addressed in a separate essay, or perhaps in a numerous series of essays. The question “How many books will Philip M. Parker write?” may be unanswerable, except by time but possibly not even with that.

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The article above is from the March/April 2008 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research.

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