What Books May Be

Article excerpt

Books, to book-dealers and collectors, are artifacts. Ideally, they are rare survivors from a past that has left them untorn, unfoxed, unrubbed - and, even better, unread. If in mint condition, they have probably been treated as precious artifacts from the start, hardly as mere texts lodged between utilitarian covers. They have been valued as paper and printing, binding and dust jacket, as fine examples of the art of publishing.

Museums (not to mention libraries bent on collection and preservation) carry the book-as-object philosophy to even greater extremes. Like superb handmade pots, they have become too special to be touched or used anymore. They have run aground on a shelf in a glass case, isolated from hands, breath, and dust. The final irony is that you might go to see a rare book in such an institution and only the two pages at which it is opened are visible. To "read on," you may have to come back next week, or next month.

Maybe computers will solve this problem - sort of: The visitor will be able to sit at a screen and mouse through an entire manuscript page by page. And yet such images will still, somehow, not have the authenticity of the real thing. The rare, in becoming so readily available, will have lost that sense of richly unusual experience that we either imagine we obtain, or actually do obtain, from gazing at the book itself. It is similar to the difference between an original painting and a reproduction of it. One is never a substitute for the other. Prophets of doom let us know that books, if not already a thing of the past, soon will be. At a recent exhibition called "Land/Book/Land" (organized by the t. Garner Gallery for contemporary ceramics in Glasgow, Scotland), which displayed works by Anderson Glob, the publicity blurb contained this sentence: "These works challenge our perception of the book, bringing to mind its imminent redundancy as electronic publishing takes over." Well, we'll see. So far there seem to be more books on the market than ever, and little sign of bookshops vanishing from the world. Despite past predictions, photography did not make painting redundant, film did not spell the end of theater, nor TV the demise of film. So it is arguable that computers will not wipe out books as we know them. It is even possible that the value we put on books as artifacts - as objects to feel, handle, pick up, and put down - may be a factor in saving them. Imaginatively, however, the electronic revolution suggests astonishing scenarios: the Anderson Glob works, for example. …


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