“I just read books.”

Others, like Willard McCarty for one, are much more the historians of computational humanities as well as representations of computers and reading than I am, but every time I watch Three Days of the Condor I am taken both by some of the initial scenes of machine reading and by the protagonist’s later description of his work:

I work for the CIA. I’m not a spy. I just read books. We read everything that’s published in the world, and we … we feed the plots … dirty tricks, codes into a computer, and the computer … checks against actual CIA plans and operations. I look for leaks, new ideas. We read adventures and novels and … journals. I … I can … Who’d invent a job like that?

The latter scene is available on MovieClips, but that infrastructure is overwrought with Flash Player requirements so they can shovel ads at you. I can’t find the former scene anywhere. I will try to find a way to post them.

What I find interesting is that the opening scene suggests that books are consumed in toto: the viewer is presented with images of books being scanned, pages being turned, entirely by machines. But what Redford’s character asserts is that the books are transformed somehow into “plots” and “codes”.

Fascinating, but what to do with it? I don’t know. For now they go into the drawer in my cabinet of curiosities marked “machine reading”. Maybe Yung-Hsing Wu will have a need for them at some point.

Here’s a Youtube video of the opening credits. It’s from an Italian source, so the voices will be dubbed later in the clip:

If the video doesn’t work, here’s the sequence as I view it:

A teletype prints out two columns of text: on the left are lines that appear to be foreign words of an inscrutable nature — KANG JEAN CHAR GWON DYI FARNG TSANG — and on the right are English words — TO THE ONE HE HAD JUST IN-. Superimposed are the beginning of the opening credits DINO DE LAURENTIIS PRESENTS in a futuristic typeface — which might very well be a representation of “machine readable” type (at the very least it is supposed to be “computer-ish”):

The very first shot of "The Three Days of the Condor"

The very first shot of “The Three Days of the Condor”

The next shot is a machine reading a book. We can “see” it reading because a line of light moves across the spread pages, held down by a metallic arm. As the machine finishes, the camera swirls about it. We see the arm that has been holding the pages down lift up and another arm reach over to turn the page. As the camera continues to swirl about, a figure moves into the frame, a woman, who appears to be checking the work of the machine.

The Reading Machine

The Reading Machine

We follow the woman, from the other side of the machine, as she moves to the teletype, again as if checking the results. She picks up the printout and then lays it back down again. As she does this, the camera continues to circle around and we are again on the same side of the machines as the woman. She then moves onto the “data bank” machine in between the reading machine and the teletype: she checks some settings, flips some switches, removes a spool.

Checking the Data

Checking the Data

From there we follow the woman into another office where debate over a plot point in a story is already in full swing.

One thought on ““I just read books.”

  1. logbook

Leave a Reply