Writing long books is a laborious and impoverishing act of foolishness: expanding in five hundred pages an idea that could be perfectly explained in a few minutes. A better procedure is to pretend that those books already exist and to offer a summary, a commentary.
These words by genius Argentinian author and ex-librarian Jorge Luis Borges are close to my heart. Most people I know love books but my feelings about them are somewhat more ambivalent. For years I used to have a phobia for libraries that had less to do with my early anti-intellectual tendencies than with the institutional smell of musty ideas.
Over time I became more appreciative of the knowledge and inspiration that could be derived from the occasional book, but more often than not I resisted reading every word between its covers. Only every once in a while did I hang on to every phrase in an attempt to postpone reaching the last page, unwilling to be faced with the emptiness that would await me in the absence of its fiction.
Today, I’m much too vested in non-linearity, interactivity and immersive media to pay much attention to novels, and when I’m reading non-fiction books I often limit myself to the introduction and the end, while skimming through the content in between. Nevertheless I am surrounded by people who are writing and publishing their work in hefty volumes which may take up as much shelf-space as the Bible. I also have friends who are avid collectors of autographed first editions and others who are promoting beautifully crafted hand-made books, some of which can be seen on SpaceCollective (here and here). But to me books are rapidly becoming precious artifacts from an era that is about to pass.
Recently I visited the public library in Seattle, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas who loves the print media and is the author of some of the above mentioned hefty tomes. His impressive building is an enticing sanctuary for the book, inspiring its visitors with an almost ecstatic optimism about a culture worth saving. The sense of exhilaration evoked by the architecture makes one look at the books as treasured objects for the ages. However the sense of euphoria lessened when it dawned on me how few people visited the library’s spiraling book stacks. Many more of them were frequenting the endless rows of computers, furnished by the city’s corporate giant Microsoft. Meanwhile the majority of visitors were sitting idle in the community spaces, neither reading nor surfing the web but simply getting through the day. The building’s most successful function, it turns out, is that of a public shelter for the homeless.
The same is true for other public libraries all across America, but in the context of this celebrated building it is particularly poignant. It is as if some of the architect’s genuine respect for the book is extended to the lives of the many aimless drifters who are filing in every day during opening hours. Like the books that are patiently waiting for someone to take them off the shelves, the lost souls are lounging day in and day out on the stylish Vitra furniture hoping for a better day. They are the disenfranchised counterparts of the wistful library visitors in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, a cathedral filled with books and the thoughts of readers.
But rather than being a nostalgic place full of people stuck in a luxurious waiting room, Koolhaas’ library appears to be in a strange sort of suspension waiting to be delivered into a future that seems to be taking shape all around its occupants. This effect is greatly enhanced by the glass structure’s panoramic view of cloud formations drifting over Seattle as if in time lapse. Everything here seems to be temporarily on hold in an otherwise proactive environment that is ready to respond to whatever may come.
As it happens, it takes very little effort to discern the writing on the wall in the most literal way. On LCD screens mounted above the Help Desk a data visualization by George Legrady shows items being checked out at a remarkably slow pace, revealing an unexpected amount of titles that would be deemed utterly redundant by most educated people. Looking around the library the average demographic of its users turns out to be middle aged. In fact, in a city of half a million people, a paltry 1000 items per month are taken home out by teenagers, primarily checking out CD’s and DVD’s.
In my post SpaceCollective’s Grand Narrative I mentioned that all the world’s books gathered in the digital domain will take up no more than 26 terabyes of disc space which can be contained on a bookshelf barely big enough to hold all 32 volumes that make up the Encyclopedia Britannica. By contrast, online competitor Wikipedia, whose content was generated in just a few years, contains 1 billion more words and can be accessed anytime and anywhere from a database stored on invisible servers. And despite being a paean to printed culture, the stacks of Seattle’s library hold only 780.000 books, all of which can be easily contained on an external hard drive that you can find on sale right now for $399 at your local department store.
In fact, future readers won’t even need a hard drive to bring the entire library into their home, where the online books will be infinitely more accessible than the originals which can neither be searched nor bookmarked, and not even quoted without retyping the text. Currently a book’s foot notes only serve as instructions for scholarly research, as opposed to the links in digital publications which will bring old texts further to life. Not to speak of the digitization of important literary archives that are now buried in the dark basements of universities, accessible only to the most diligent of researchers. The truth is that once the books are digitally available an entire universe will open up around each and every one of them as its contents are let loose on the world, which will be a milestone of the same order as the emergence of the printing press, which initially made books available to the masses.
People often jump to the conclusion that digital technology threatens to bring about the end of books, but the opposite is bound to be true, as may be demonstrated by the Total Library project that is being launched on SpaceCollective. Obvious goes as far as to suggest that as “mass produced information slowly moves from the printed page to the computer screen, to hand-held digital-ink devices, so the value of the printed word will transmogrify.” There can be no doubt that in the digital age the significance of the books’ contents will more than ever live up to Obvious’ claim that they will once again become “equivalent with the contents of consciousness.” But to what extent this exalted status will be passed on to the actual printed book remains to be seen.
At the very minimum we can rest assured that the stacks of Seattle’s library will remain the dedicated home to numerous bound editions which, like wizened elders, have been taken out of circulation, while being endowed with the highest status a library book can attain, clearly marked on their withered bindings: FOR REFERENCE ONLY.
Fri, Mar 21, 2008 Permanent link
Sent to project: The Total Library, What happened to nature?
Sent to project: The Total Library, What happened to nature?
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