Once upon a time, it was a commonplace to think one lived on after death either by having children or by creating art. Art was permanent: Lascaux and Stonehenge achieved a kind of mega level of permanence (who made them? imagine lasting so long!) and Sonnet 17, the Canterbury Tales, the Pièta—these gave (are still giving) centuries of life to the names of their makers. Also, destroyers of civilizations have long known that to incinerate the art, or the library, is to eliminate culture, to wipe the slate clean for one’s own use: Alexandria, Sarajevo.
As we’ve spent today talking about the future of the book, I have this gnawing (Luddite?) question about what other than digitization plays a role in that future? Every answer circles back to at least the effects and implications of technology. One thing I have noticed among writers is that if they still believe their writing promises some type of immortality, they don’t let on. We are resigned to the ephemeral (even as we love and hate the Internet because whatever we put out there is there FOREVER). But ephemerality has won, or it’s the less terrifying name we’ve given to what is really a matter of flood and surge. No one is going to read us or notice us because the life cycle of a book is less than a year, the influx of new books drowns the already-old ones within shorter and shorter periods of time. Web publications too, zoom, on to the next thing. Who will ever find the previous tables of contents, except for someone who knows to look? Ephemerality has advantages: it encourages experiment; it makes us feel brave.
If my book is an object made of acid-free paper, or if it’s a letter-press throwback, lovingly made by hand in Tucson or Manhattan, it can take a lot of wear and tear. Maybe there are 1000 (or 100) of them in the world (75 percent in the publisher’s garage, okay). They have a scent; there may be pretty endpapers with a shiver of flaxen texture. If it’s a download, there could be infinitely many, but…one knows better. One knows that particular infinity is easily all promise and no count.
We might worry that the sprawl of the internet, or, say, the pffst of whatever server houses one’s work (the squirrel who fried New England…) we might worry that together these possibilities, as well as questions about data storage, built-in obsolescence, etc., make the future of the electronic book comparatively delicate. And as we now know, you can’t sneak things around on the Internet (not in America), and books have a long clandestine history. So there are good reasons to recognize that what seem to be advances have a downside.
I’m thinking of Robert Pinsky’s poem “Book,” in First Things to Hand (2006). It’s a poem that, at first, seems nostalgic, luxuriating in the language of bookmaking and stories of books worth dying for, almost, and even the mouthsounds bk, bch of the very word in English, in German. The poem is full of the voluptuary pleasure of holding books and the mental voyages books enable. And then:
…the passion to make a book—passion of the writer
Smelling glue and ink, sensuous. The writer’s dread of making
Another tombstone, my marker orderly in its place in the stacks.
Or to infiltrate and inhabit another soul, as a splinter of spirit
Pressed between pages like a wildflower, odorless, brittle.
The stacks themselves a cemetery.