Monday, November 12, 2007

Books or Butter?

In some recent New Yorker (I'm a little behind), Anthony Grafton has a piece about the history of organizing information. One of his points is that we've always had too much information, and we've always been worried about how to access what we need, so the whole "oh my god the internet search engine is going to change everything" isn't, maybe, the paradigm shift you might have thought.

That's fine. And his discussion of the history of information is fun and interesting.

Toward the end, Grafton starts talking about how much things will change with Google et al. digitizing books. His first point is that things won't change much because all they're doing, really, is scanning things in and allowing us to search them; it's not anything so dramatic.

And then he gets into that whole "irreplaceability of the book" thing. You know, we have to have books; we can't live without them; do what you want with the whole "intertubes" thing but eventually you're going to have to get your ass to the library and get the wood pulp product off the shelf.

This line always gets on my nerves, even though I'm probably as great a lover of the old-fashioned book as you'll find anywhere. Books are just nice: you can take them to bed, take them to the sofa, flip the pages back and forth, blah blah blah, this ground has all been well-covered.

But the Grafton point isn't that books are a pleasure but rather that they are irreplaceable sources of knowledge -- knowledge you can't get from digital archives. What's the evidence? As far as I could tell the only evidence he offers is that some people get some information from some physical books. Like, some historians smell books to see if they smell like vingar, to see if they were sprinkled to avoid disease, to see if there were outbreaks.

OK, I admit this is information you get from physical books, but really, most of us are not in the vinegar-book-business, nor are we in the paper-analysis business, or any other business other than just reading the words that are written down. For the vast majority of purposes, the digital version does just fine.

It matters, because books are freaking expensive compared to digitized access. And if we're going to spend money -- communal money -- on them, we'd better have some good reasons. After all, there are people who need food and shelter.

There may indeed be good reasons for pouring money into the communal purchase of books. But knowing whether old ones smell like vinegar isn't one of them. It isn't even in the right ballpark.


Captain Colossal said...

Nicholson Baker once mounted this big campaign to save the books that libraries were dumping, plus the library card catalog. I was pretty moved by this at the time, but then one of the people at the library I was working at pointed out that space can be hard to come by and also that Nicholson Baker was being a little annoying about the whole thing.

I eventually came around to that point of view, although I love the frozen-in-amber effect of libraries that don't really update their collections.

Noko Marie said...

What happened to Nicholson Baker? I liked those early books, but he's fallen off my radar screen. Wasn't there some "inside the mind of the terrorist" thing?

I was never too sentimental about the card catalogue, but I have to say, the way libraries have organized themselves these days, it's harder to check a goddamn call number from within the library than it is from home. Every library I use the computers are all hogged by people doing every other thing imaginable than checking a call number. Annoying! Some computers should be devoted to only that. Is that too much to ask? And don't get me started on the total abandonment of quiet space as a library goal.

Octopus Grigori said...

Nicholson Baker, like David Foster Wallace, Arsenio Hall, MC Hammer, and the Clintons, was a creature and symptom of the 90's. In Baker's case, we are speaking specifically of the first half of the 90's. (It is debatable which half of the decade was more execrable). His work, which seemed unsustainably self-absorbed and precious from the get-go, burned bright for those unbearable years in the morning of the decade that would bring us "L.A. Story", the Spin Doctors, and, eventually, David Eggers.

Signs that something was seriously, perhaps fatally, wrong appeared with FERMATA (the stopping time and jerking off novel). There was a bizarre attempt at a children's story in 1998 THE EVERLASTING STORY OF NORY or something like that (this often gets confused in my mind with the Paul Auster book written from the point of view of a dog), the hubbub about preserving paper in libraries with DOUBLE FOLD, and then the desperate plea for attention with CHECKPOINT (the assassination novel).

Baker's highpoints (MEZZANINE, VOX, U AND I) were perfect for idle undergrads hiding in carrels deep inside their private colleges putting off studying for their required science courses, bobbing in the gentle pointless years in the wake of Reagonomics, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Bill Clinton's first term. That is to say, they were fun in a useless and indulgent and soulless way. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

I'm not holding out much hope for the return of Baker as a novelist anytime soon. He simply lacks the heart for the medium. I could, however, see him emerging as a popular blogger or magazine writer. He could also do well as a commentator on public radio.

Octopus Grigori said...

Yes - Reaganomics.

Captain Colossal said...

Execrable? What the hell? And what's the standard for deciding if a book has soul or not?

Noko Marie said...

I liked The Fermata. Sometimes little moments from that book come to my mind. Like when the narrator is so appalled by the taxi driver or whatever who wants to take the girl coming out of NAPA auto parts and just rape her. The narrator is all, "Huh? What?!" -- he says some thing about all of us wanting other people to be sort of like ourselves. I don't know if that's true but I am often reminded of it. Also the woman who dresses in an "expensive loungy way" or something - that's good.