All of the Books in the World
As many other bloggers have mentioned over the past week, Google recently came out with an announcement that there are 129, 864, 880 books in the world. This post explains how Google got to that number (very interesting), defines what a “book” is (”‘tome,’ an idealized bound volume”), and references a silly April Fools joke (adding a turkey probe to a library’s catalog).
Another big announcement from recent weeks was Jeff Bezos’s statement that Amazon.com is now selling more ebooks than hardcovers prompting (once again) the endless string of “OMG print books are almost dead!” articles. This one by Malcolm Jones fits the “I’ll miss physical books” category of reactionary pieces, but still implies that the days of hardcovers and paperbacks are numbered.
Which, taken to the extreme, brings up an interesting idea—what are we going to do with these millions of books (and billions of copies) once we fully convert to an e-world?
One idea comes from Matej Kren’s art installation “Scanner”—currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Bologna, and which looks a little something like this:
This week’s Consumed by Rob Walker (whose Buying In is an all-time favorite book of mine) is all about books as art:
For starters, books have served as useful raw material for conversion into an impressive variety of artworks. Jacqueline Rush Lee has created a body of work that turns books into organic-looking shapes — sometimes pages are rolled, sometimes they seem to grow from their open covers, sometimes they’re squashed into wholly different forms. Su Blackwell’s intricate cutouts rise from old books like impossible pop-ups; Stephen Doyle has made tanks and staircases from paper pages, resting on open books that serve as pedestals. Guy Laramée and Brian Dettmer have each created compelling three-dimensional objects by carving or otherwise restructuring books; Robert The has cut books into gun shapes. Thomas Allen has made vivid images of figures rising from lurid pulp paperbacks. Photographers like Paul Octavious, Victor Shrager and Abelardo Morell, among others, have made pictures that linger over book details, or rearrange book groups, in memorable ways.
(Although honestly, the coolest, almost meta, bit of this article is the final paragraph about Busted Typewriter, which hollows out books—including Buying In—to serve as Kindle cases, giving you the feel of a “real” book to go with the convenience of e.)
All of this brings to mind Julio Cortazar’s short story “End of the World of the End,” which opens with a sort of vision of the electronic, self-publishing world:
As the scribes will persist, the few readers there are in the world are going to have to change their roles and become scribes themselves. More and more countries will be made up of scribes, and more and more factories will be necessary to manufacture paper and ink, the scribes by day and the machines by night to print the scribes’ work. First the libraries will overflow the houses, then the municipalities decide (now we’re really into in) to sacrifice their children’s playgrounds to enlarge the libraries. Then the theaters will go, then the maternity homes, slaughterhouses, bars, hospitals. The poor use the books like bricks, they stick them together with cement and build walls of books and live in cabins of books.
This isn’t enough to stem the flow of books, so a new idea is proposed:
The President of the Republic gets on the telephone with the presidents of the republics, and intelligently proposes to cast the leftover books into the sea, which act is accomplished simultaneously on every coast in the world. Thus the Siberian scribes see their works cast into a sea of ice and the Indonesian scribes etc. This allows the scribes to step up their production as the earth again has space to store their books. It does not occur to them that the sea has a bottom and that at the bottom of the sea the printed matter is beginning to pile up, first in the form of a sticky pulp, then in the form of a solid pulp, and finally a tough though viscous flooring which rises several feet a day and will finally reach the surface. Then much of the water invades many of the lands and there is a new distribution of continents and oceans, and presidents of various republics are replaced by lakes and peninsulas, presidents of other republics see immense territories newly open to their ambitions, etc.
As time goes on, this landmass of pulp becomes home to nightclubs and casinos, causing the scribes to store all their books on land once again. The ink and paper companies go bankrupt, the scribes write on “slabs of wood or rock or on stone tiles, etc.”
On the earth the race of scribes lives precariously, doomed to extinction, and at sea there are the islands and casinos, or rather the ex-transatlantic liners, where the presidents of the republics have fled to refuge and where they hold enormous parties and exchange wireless messages from island to island, president to president, and captain to captain.
And there you go.