Booksellers: Merchants of Culture

It doesn’t take long for even acquaintances to discover that I am a rabid bibliophile.  Perhaps not to the extent that I am piling up books I’ve never read into storage bins behind overstuffed bookshelves which have other storage bins full of books surrounding tables and chairs and couches piled with books… no no, I am not that sort of bibliophile.

I just like to read.  Let’s face it — there are other vices in this world.

Every once in awhile, I muse on the passing of the bookstore.  In the not-to-recent past, your hometown bookseller was all you had.  Then the box stores replaced your local bookworm, and the internet killed the box store, then e-books killed books.  History ends.

…yet the local bookstore hasn’t faded into obscurity just yet.  There’s something quite gratifying about combing through bookshelves of carefully bought and archived books.  Nassim Taleb’s anti-library — borrowing from Umberto Eco’s example — fits rather well:

a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelf will look at you menacingly. Indeed the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.

Of course, why have rows upon rows of books when a single Amazon Kindle will do, right?

I won’t go into the excellent reviews of the three books involved in this column.  I will point towards this one particular line that shows the great divide between the digital presence of something such as Google Books (an effort to digitize every book ever published) and your above-average librarian:

I. A. Richards called the book “a machine to think with”, yet it is curiously resistant to technological standardization. That point escapes many digitizing technologists, who are not perhaps the anti-book boors as sometimes portrayed. (Several on the Google Books blog confess to loving books.) Rather they may be the last romantics, idealizing the book as a simple carrier of information and so one that submits unproblematically to their computer algorithms. When I asked a senior Google figure, who whispered advance notice of the firm’s scanning project some years ago, which books the firm would choose, he insisted they would scan them all. About the same time, when a librarian at one of the first libraries to work with Google offered one of their engineers access to their metadata, the engineer clearly had little idea what bibliographic metadata was. Only a romantic, with faith in the simplicity of books compared to the sophistication of computers, would take on such a task in such a way. (No doubt without such naivety, the task would never have been undertaken at all.) Innocence or ignorance of the material reality of books remains; it is evident, for example, in a set of technical books whose digital file lacks most of the even pages. In their place is a note: “this page missing from the original”, conjuring the splendid fantasy of a codex of recto pages without versos.

There you have it.

One of the article’s authors emphasizes the “publishing chain” and it’s effects on property.  Essentially, an open library project such as the one embarked upon by Google Books may indeed liberate knowledge, but put those who codify such knowledge into books in literal chains, stripping them of the profit necessary to continue their craft:

Horowitz defends an interminable copyright by maintaining that scholarly publishing needs it and we need scholarly publishing, for its high standards are essential to a democratic society. Thompson also considers publishing’s contribution to the “public sphere”, but for him it is, refreshingly, an afterthought. For Horowitz, it is in the opening salvo (though rendered a little uncertain by later references to the “public square”). Publishing is the core of democracy, he argues, and its survival is under imminent threat. The implications of its collapse are “profound”. We ignore them “at our peril”, and so forth.

Of that, I could care very little.  Publishers and authors have a funny way of sorting these things out, and the liberation of knowledge is never a net negative.  To the contrary, it can only be of help.

But it does raise a curious question.

How does one go about accumulating an anti-library of one’s own when, in the not too distant future, every book ever published or excavated will literally be handed to you on a tablet the size of a 19th century schoolroom chalkboard?

For my own part, my grandfather was a bibliophile of the same sort as myself, absorbing several collections into his own set of books.  Though that library has now been split between family and booksellers and auctioneers, I am very proud to have taken the remains of that collection and incorporated them into my own.  Will it be maintained to any degree?  I have hopes… just as much as any library hopes to have their collections preserved.  Still… there is an inevitability at play:

Such libraries inevitably dissolve when their owner dies. Bonnet is aware of that. But is he right when he argues that book collecting itself is dissolving, becoming a new Atlantis beneath the digital wave? As his hard-to-move collection shows, books are indeed obdurate. (They may not even burn at 451 Fahrenheit.) Were codex production to grind to a halt in the face of the digital, it would take a long time to wind down the existing stock (including the 450,000 titles Thompson tells us are published annually) and for book sales and circulation to sink below the surface of life. Though the form may change, the book chain itself is likely to continue to endure. For ultimately, it is a communication chain, and it is hard to believe our garrulous species will cease trying to communicate.

The wealth of books currently existing and being printed isn’t decreasing anytime soon.  There is a familiarity and a comfort level with the printed word that doesn’t quite die out.  The book chain, as the article notes, is likely to endure, all the way from the advent of the e-book, all the way down to the local bookseller who plays his own part in purchasing libraries to sell so that others may incorporate it into theirs.

It’s not quite immortality, but both anti-libraries and booksellers have their own ways of extending the idea of culture.

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