Libraries

This morning, on the way to work, I read and enjoyed this short piece by Leon Wieseltier on libraries and the physical book.

Leon Wieseltier is a fine stylist and an astute observer (frankly: in the past, on many occasions, I've found Wieseltier's stances–his political opinions mostly–to be wrong-headed and infuriating. But let's shelve all that for the time being). For me, a well-written paean to the physical library is to be read with relish.

Some samples from the piece:

"A wall of books is a wall of windows." Gorgeous.

"Even if every book in my library is on Google Books, my library is not on Google Books." So true!

"There is something inhuman about the pristinity of digital publication. It lacks fingerprints. But the copy of a book that is on my shelf is my copy. It is unlike any other copy, it has been individuated." Amen, sister.

Only towards the end of the article did the fact of the medium I was reading it on emerge in the foreground of my consciousness: iPad; Instapaper; found through Twitter. This amusing information occurred to me around the same moment I surfaced from my reading to take stock of where I was on the subway (66th Street).

The text I was reading had done what text does so well: i.e. it was immersive, and transparent.

(The digital aspect of the article's text-delivery had exhibited its own virtues: ease of access, and share-ability.)

It's only after the fact, now that I'm at work, and done with my reading, that I'm finding that the digital medium is failing me:

I'm wanting to return to the piece (having accidentally re-set Instapaper, lack of wifi, among other things, prevents me), and may, hypothetically, want to return to it again and again. Perhaps I would like to incorporate this article into the warp and woof of my life–have it lying around–to be stumbled upon; re-read, reconsidered. But this piece of writing will not, after all, become part "of my biography" the way physical texts do, as it will invariably vanish into the uncultivated, undifferentiated, un-curated part of my brain reserved for the mass of digital information, mediated by screens, that flows untrammeled through my fractured awareness almost every waking hour of every day (I'm not saying this particular article deserves to be preserved. I'm just using it as a case study). That is to say: I will forget it. It is not, and cannot be, mine in any lasting respect. Sure–this article can be saved, in the same way my photos and my music are saved, to my hard drive. But every last article I've abandoned to those digital archives, just like all of those jpgs and mp3s similarly consigned, has become like Indiana Jones's lost ark: buried in an infinite warehouse of infinite treasures, never to be seen or heard from again.



And what use is the ark of the covenant if you've forgotten you own it? If it needs to await a 1-in-10,000 chance of "shuffling" to the fore? (the odds will be even worse in the future as drives get more capacious). The limitation of physical storage space is an unacknowledged boon to consumers of media. It keeps one's knowledge in sight, and at hand.

In any case- I've determined that the way I can best incorporate a digital artifact into my continued existence, for lack of a physical analog, is to share it. (which is what I'm doing now). This is how I will hoard it: I will give it out, then field the reactions. The sharing is the mnemonic- the preserving agent.

And sharing is nice. I like sharing.

But.

It's not the same, is it?

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On the topic of the physical book, Barbara deWilde, legend, and former Knopf jacket designer, is doing some fun work on the meaning of books and text. Check out her site Whatthebook. And if you haven't already, go see the AIGA Fifty Books show which Barbara designed using the feedback from her Whatthebook site. It's a great show (full disclosure- i'm in it. But don't let that dissuade you).

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Finally, because of all these talks of mine (Does he ever tire of hearing his own voice? Yes- yes I do), and my various design jobs, I've been unable to revisit my "Fictions" posts. Sorry folks. Still hoping to get to it.

Love,

Peter




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