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.
And say that I think Malcolm Jones’s critique of the Library of America is pretty stupid. I wanted to write something more inflammatory and fun, but E.J. and Nate wisely advised against it.
In case you haven’t read this piece, Jones basically tees-off on the LOA, claiming they’ve “jumped the shark” by publishing sub-par writers and not adhering to their mission:
Here’s how the LOA describes itself and its mission: “The Library of America helps to preserve our nation’s literary heritage by publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing. An independent nonprofit organization, it was founded in 1979 with seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation.”
What’s really at work in Jones’s diatribe is a filtered exposure of his own aesthetic concept of “best and most significant.” This is sooooooo Newsweek. Obviously, the Jones canon is as predictable as white toast (with special emphasis on white and male), and he’s not a big fan of Philip K. Dick (OK, my blood starts to boil), Nathaniel West, Lovecraft, Dawn Powell. But here’s the moment that really pissed me off:
And then, in May, here comes an entire volume dedicated to . . . Shirley Jackson? A writer mostly famous for one short story, “The Lottery.” Is LOA about to jump the shark?
It’s been a couple years, but I’ll totally stand by We Have Always Lived in the Castle. And I’ll make a random guess that Jones has never read this, or The Haunting of Hill House, both of which are in the prestigious Penguin Classics series . . .
Besides, every good publisher uses its platform to introduce audiences to authors they may not be aware of, or might enjoy being exposed to. What was the fastest selling LOA book in history? The first collection of PKD novels. Why? Perhaps because a lot of readers are sick of the predictable and unchanging “American Canon.” Preserve away LOA. Give me surprises, bind them in elegant black, matching volumes. And cheers to editor Geoffrey O’Brien for taking risks and modernizing an enterprise that could otherwise become insanely insular and staid.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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