Monday, August 31, 2009

Books: here to stay

To the Best of Our Knowledge on public radio had a recent segment on libraries, books and reading. They featured Jonathon Rundman's Librarian song, and one of my favorite authors, Ursula K. LeGuin, talking about her essay in Harper's magazine, "Staying awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading."

The essay is worth re-reading. We have noticed here at APL that although the use of media is increasing, more books are being used as well. LeGuin notes:

The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you’re fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.

This is crucial, the fact that a book is a thing, physically there, durable, indefinitely reusable, an object of value.

I am far from dismissing the vast usefulness of electronic publication, but my guess is that print-on-demand will become and remain essential. Electrons are as evanescent as thoughts. History begins with the written word. Much of civilization now relies on the durability of the bound book—its capacity for keeping memory in solid, physical form. The continuous existence of books is a great part of our continuity as an intelligent species.
If I were interested in something like, say, building a library, I'd be paying attention.


R Harry Watson said...

This reminds me of my favorite quote from the old Max Headroom series. Blank Reg offers Paula a book in trade for a news video camera.
Paula: What's that?
Blank Reg: It's a book!
Paula: Well, what's that?
Blank Reg: It's a nonvolatile storage medium. It's very rare, you should have one.
Paula: Stuff it!