Sunday, May 13, 2012

Intellectual Archaeology

One thing you can say in favor of electronic books – they don't have to be stored in the garage because of lack of shelf space, so they don't get used as nesting material by the local rodent population. I spent much of the past weekend mucking the rat poop out of the garage, and in the process needed to carefully examine each precious volume as I removed it from one chewed-up box into a new and hopefully impenetrable plastic one.

It's like doing archeology on one's self, every past interest is there, like shards of pottery, buried in a succession of layers. Every time I do this (during moves or major housecleanings or emergencies like this) I re-sort them, based on vague criterion of how they fit together (like "professional" vs other, but in fact I work as hard as I can to blur that line, so that doesn't really work very well). Some even make it to a box to sell or donate, but not very many this time since what remain after the last few filters are those I can't make myself part with. A few get pulled out to give to my children, but they are at the stage of where they would rather find their own books.

It is difficult to pretend that all these books, all these abandoned directions of thought, represent a coherent project, that I was after something during all that time I was accumulating them. Yet there is something that ties them all together, even if it's only my personal history. That is rather disordered, to be sure, but it's not nothing.

I guess I continue to cart around these obsolete chunks of dead trees because they do in some weird way constitute a large chunk of my identity. And just like the part of myself that lives in the head, they are falling victims to decay, to the the depradations of nature and time.


fsascott said...

You have probably regarded your books purely as utilitarian objects in the past and have not quite arrived at the point of considering them for their aesthetic value. Of course, few modern books have much aesthetic value.

I find reading text on a computer screen becomes physically painful for me after some time, to the point that my eyes ache and soon my head begins to ache. Eyedrops ameliorate but do not eliminate the discomfort.

On the other hand, I can still read printed paper for hours without distress. A well made book, nicely printed on a natural white paper (unbleached and without fillers or fluorescent whiteners) is a worthwhile aesthetic experience. I have many books printed in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. They are as pleasing to touch and smell as to look at and read.

There is something to be said for reading Cicero or Juvenal in an Aldine edition. The recension of the text was done by first-rate scholars, who made no footnotes to aid the poor victim of a twentieth-century education. The paper, as crisp today as it was when it left Fabbriano, the ink as deeply black as only hand letterpress work with dampened paper can make it, and the leather or vellum binding: all these bespeak the proud craftsmanship of truly skilled workmen. And to those who dismiss this all as an exercise in luxury or nostalgia - who cares to bet that any current electronic storage medium will last five hundred years?

These old books might easily last five hundred more. easily outliving us, if only they do not fall victim to our neglect and folly. Indeed, they often persist in spite of these perennial failings of human character. Consider the recently discovered palimpsest of Archimedes, which upon examination with modern technology, revealed that its author knew much about what we now call the integral calculus.

Books often show us that our forebears knew more than we thought they did, even that mankind has forgotten some of what they knew - and therefore that we should be less cocky about our own achievements, and more respectful of theirs. This is not only part of their charm, but part of their continuing utility.

mtraven said...

Oh, I have plenty of aesthetic appreciation for fine volumes, although I haven't spent a lot of money on acquiring them. And the problems with electronic media you point out are very real.

Speaking of archeology, my high school education spanned the very beginnings of the personal computer era and the end of the letterpress printing era -- my school had a print shop with some nice ancient hand-fed letterpress printers which I got to use. I doubt they are still around, they would pass safety regulations today. Even when I was there they were clearly well past usefulness for their stated function of vocational training.

San Francisco has an devoted to the book; the founder of that happens to be married to the director of the Internet Archive, so these worlds aren't necessarily that far apart.