Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Soylent Green Is Made Of People

More houses used to have libraries. Books used to be objects on every shelf - and heir to decay, tearing, browning at the edges, silver fish and mold.

One collected books in order to become "learned." They manifested a physical amalgam of your own knowledge, souvenirs of previous interests and areas of study, arcane statistics and insights - a kind of memory adjunct. They're there because you need them to look something up every so often - you can't memorize everything and there's comfort in knowing at least what can be found in them, pleasure in knowing where to find something.

Of course you must be familiar with them to be able to get your hands on what you're looking for. Someone famous said, "Who wants a library full of books you've already read?" Well, that is a different kind of library. That's a want list acquired, weighing down and intruding on your future free time.

Now books are moving en masse to digital form, and are acquired by download spontaneously and often at a whim. Formatted files sit on Kindles and Nooks owned by increasing layers of demographic, and are not burdened by the physicality of real books or the potency of having been read and displayed. No, instead they have become lighter than air and are infinitely more portable, especially in numbers.

An electronic device is still useful for reference - it's not very cool to pull out an OED in the bar when a trivia question about past-pluperfect inflections arises (again). If that's your idea of a good time in a bar maybe you're not as cool as you thought - or you're in the wrong bar - or maybe you do want to pull out an OED. Digital books can be taken anyplace. They can be downloaded and searched everywhere and yet are no where. They are files, in the cloud. We rent the ability to view them, through the phosphor screen, rather than getting the thing delivered for us to put on the shelf - to tease us over how much future free time it means.

We certainly can't copy or move them from device to device. And every so often we are reminded that someone else controls the content as when Amazon deaccessioned all the digital copies of 1984 from afar, an unfortunate irony and strangely prescient considering the title. Google Books only allows you to look at one page at a time based on your search term, rather than let you view an entire copyrighted work. They don't give it all to you for free online - and they shouldn't. They're protecting content by denying you the ability to refer to it meaningfully - but there you go.

And your digital files won't move to any other device, and will eventually become technologically obsolete.

We are awash in cultural artifacts but we simply don't see anyone's books anymore. We can't keep them or hold them. We can't check the dude out by what books he's got - or by what LPs are on the turntable. Books are no longer valued as objects with impact, as objects worth seeing. Owning. Having. Newspapers are already gone, and magazines are next, and that iPad subscription to Sports Illustrated won't keep you warm at night in 5 years. Even on BART, if someone's reading Gibbon's Decline of the Roman Empire on their iTouch, you'd assume they were FourSquaring (must everything become its own verb?). Proponents insist that there's no room for the 10,000 books available and now in your back pocket on a Kindle. You can pull them out anywhere. There's no room on any shelf for that many. No room in a house, or 2 houses. Break the tyranny of the dusty page.

I say we make room. Make room to display the value books assert in their very existence - heavy and aging at the expense of something else. That is what gives them value. To make room is to admit their worth and that a decision was made. That they are here instead of some other object. These books are here because I read them and I know what's in them and they represent who I am.

If they're in the air and they're infinite and they are all around us, and invisible, they're like a watered down soup. Just filler and not worth the space they take up.

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