by Hugh Gilmore
A lot of hype and hysteria surround the issue of “bookless” libraries, but the fact remains that libraries as we know them are going to change dramatically in coming years. Some of the current resistance to the idea is rational, but most of it is sentimental. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. Books do that to people. Make them lose their minds. For better or worse.
Until computers almost magically appeared on people’s desktops – and then showed up on their laps and in their pockets – it hardly seemed necessary to define what a book was. To the current residents of planet Earth, a book had normally been a physical object. Books had paper pages whose surfaces were covered with inked symbols, called letters. These letters were arranged into words, paragraphs and chapters.
People who knew how to “read” – that is, people who knew how to decode the inked shapes – could experience the knowledge, thoughts and imaginings of other people, including people who lived far away, or, indeed, no longer lived at all.
As objects, books affected all the human senses. Though most of the millions of them looked the same, some could be quite beautiful to behold, a treat for the eye. Acoustically, they could be quite noisy when used, especially the pages of new books.
To the nose their smell was likened to cheese, fresh and clean when new, arrogantly aromatic when ripened with age and mold. Touch, too, reveled at the smoothness of new book covers, and people’s fingers would caress with near-reverence the fine, mysterious suppleness of the rag-based paper found in the books from earlier generations. As for taste – literally – it was not uncommon for readers to break off a dog-eared page corner and enjoy its savor.
Books also had size. Though they might range, like dogs, from tiny to humongous, most of them were about nine inches tall, six-and-a-half inches wide, and an inch thick. These facts seemed insignificant until their “owners” faced the impossible task of fitting an infinite number of them into a finite space. Most book lovers seemed not capable of such higher math and thus lived lives of pile, cram and spillage.
Being physical objects, books also had weight. Their weights varied, based on the book’s size, paper, and the number of pages. Most books weighed a negligible pound or so, but some books, such as dictionaries and art books could weigh ten pounds or more. Textbooks used by students tended to weigh about five pounds and a backpack filled with them was one of the more burdensome aspects of youthful scholarship. Many a person’s life of backaches began thus in childhood. Air travelers at one extreme of gravity-defiance and hikers at another were forced to choose their reading material based on the seemingly irrelevant criterion of weight.
Besides having size, shape and weight, books as physical objects were also characterized by another trait: They were subject, like the humans who loved them, to decay. In a now-famous book titled “The Enemies of Books,” (1880) a bibliophile named William Blades identified the following causes of book destruction: fire, water, gas and heat, dust and neglect, ignorance and bigotry, the bookworm, book collectors, servants and children.
Blades begins the conclusion of the 1888 edition of his book with the words, “It is a great pity that there should be so many distinct enemies at work for the destruction of literature, and that they should so often be allowed to work out their sad end.” His words ring true even in 2014. (And his “book” is available as an e-book on Project Gutenberg.org)
Even when stored in ideal conditions, however, books were made of corruptible materials and began to fall apart soon after they were published. The pace of this decline picked up in the second half of the 19th century with the invention of wood pulp paper (hence: “pulp” novels, etc.) and worsened when the addition of chemicals, such as sulfurous acid, began. Most commercial books published since then have begun falling apart. Even when they look sound, their pages crumble when they are used as anything other than paperweights or decorative objects.
Nonetheless, despite their size, weight and impermanence, books became an almost perfect means of transferring human knowledge and imaginings from one person to another. And from one generation to another. Portable, cheap, borrowable, simple to use, they were perfect culture carriers. They also became the technology of choice for sustaining a democratic republic: The humblest person could learn as much as the son of the mightiest king.
And if a person could not afford to buy his own personal copy of a book, he or she and their neighbors could chip in and purchase it. And in fact, they could own many books. Hundreds. Thousands. Only … they would need a place to store them so they’d be available to one another. And hire a person to look after the books and protect them from their enemies.
Next week: Just what is a “library” anyway?
Hugh Gilmore owns and maintains an old and rare bookselling business and has written both novels and memoirs based on his experiences in that world. His books, including “Scenes from a Bookshop,” are published in both e-book and print “formats.” Available through Amazon.com and bookstores.