Saturday, July 10, 2010

No End of Books

"I...had always thought of Paradise
In form and image as a library."

Jorge Luis Borges, "Poem of the Gifts"

"My library
Was dukedom large enough."

Prospero, The Tempest

If Thoreau was right that one's wealth may be measured by how much one can do without, that is, the smallness of one's needs rather than the mass of one's possessions, then the Internet and Kindle, etc. are making readers rich beyond the dreams of avarice. As the (then) seven-year-old put it recently, "Daddy, why do you have so many books in the house? Don't you know that you can read books on the computer?"

And yet Nathan Schneider, among many others I'm sure, claims a role for books going well beyond the textual information they contain. For him they are a "theater of memory," a personal (and collectively, a cultural) record of imaginative and intellectual development. And David Brooks argues that books, in contrast to the chaotically egalitarian Internet, embody standards of intellectual hierarchy and wisdom.

What of print culture will survive? Not physical newspapers, surely. For many years a faithful newspaper subscriber (and long ago a delivery "boy"), I am now appalled that, daily, countless trees are sacrificed, and countless gallons of gasoline burned, so that bundles of paper may be dropped on porches to be briefly perused before passing (one hopes) to the recycling bin, when the same information may be transmitted by the energy cost of turning on the computer for a few minutes. To be sure, this information should be paid for, and it remains economically perplexing that one has access to so much free information online.

While not a hoarder per se, I used to stockpile magazines and journals (no more). Will weeklies and monthlies survive in paper form, if only for doctors' offices? They would seem to have a better chance than newspaper, but probably not, still, a good chance. Their value does not significantly transcend the textual information they contain.

What of books then? I have been considering another winnowing of my library--what is indispensable in paper form? Three categories, I would argue. First, and most straightforwardly, are the art, photography, and graphic design books, which are frank objects of beauty in their own right. Second, there are books of, one might trivially and misleadingly say, "sentimental" interest, that is, books that, when they catch my eye on the shelf, evoke a memorable experience of imagination or thought in my life (ranging from the relatively picayune, such as Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series, read in the summer of 1982, to quasi-respectable professional works of recent years). Third are the classics, however considered, that is, those texts that embody such value for me that at any given time I wouldn't want to have to depend on anything beyond visible light for the reading of them, and certainly not upon electrical power, Internet access, or the vicissitudes of any electrical device. Once acquired, a book provides near-perfect freedom which, short of frank theft of destruction, cannot be taken away.

Books will survive in some form for the same reason that, even in the age of reproduction, original art and live performance survive: as bodily creatures, we crave and require more than just information. We need tactile experience. Books will become fewer and more expensive, and people will become far more selective in what they choose to shelve, but they will survive. What will vanish into readable cyberspace will be the teeming fields of routine fiction and fact, texts that are diverting or useful for a month or a year. Those that prove their worth to following generations will pass into paper. For those who care about such things, personal and cultural libraries will remain anchors of intellectural and imaginative memory and identity. Like churches, museums, and parks, books will persist, even in diminished numbers, as quasi-sacred artifacts of thinking bodily creatures.


Anonymous said...

I think digital access to books/texts makes us more literarily adventurous. It tends to broaden the scope of mental inquiry--which can't be a bad thing... or can it?-- whereas tactile books just keep cutting into old scar tissue making a wound more of a wound, a fixation more of a chronic debilitation that eventually leads to mental, philisophical, social and political paralysis.

Paper books will/should become curios for aesthetic appreciation. And as you said, they're indispensible to art itself where form is very much part of the content.

Novalis said...

Wow, I had no idea books were so hazardous...but they did render obsolete the great feats of memorization typical of oral cultures, which goes to show that no technological advance is without its costs.

#1 Cuz said...

I also enjoyed the Thomas Covenant "Unbeliever" series. I still have mine on the shelf.

Novalis said...

Yep, I should consider rereading it one of these days...

JBS said...

one's wealth may be measured by how much one can do without...
Did Thoreau say this, or do you cite his implicit message?
(I can't find it)

Novalis said...

Walden, chapter two: "...for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone."