Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The compiler in the attic

The best thing you can let happen to most books is to let 'em go out of print. Not that they are bad, or worthless, or anything like that. It's just that you've got to make room for all the new books coming out. It's the out-of-print books, the ones that are allowed to peacefully expire, that become the intellectual compost -- the cultural fertilizer -- needed to enrich the soil out of which the new books sprout. Let's extend the gardening metaphor. It worked for Kosinski's Chance. (Does anyone read Kosinki any more? I doubt it.) The gardener's got to prune and pull up to encourage new growth and give shape to the garden. Snip snip snip. Otherwise, it'll turn into a tangled mess back there. Chaos. The perennials need pruning and the annuals need pulling up and discarding so you can plant a new crop every year. Just like most books, they only last a season or so. A lot more books are annuals than they are perennials. Many, of course, are simply weeds.

And if you let them go out-of-print, don't try to pull that old Alexandrian trick and store them in a library for future reference, pretending that you've collected, collated, and indexed all the wisdom in the world. Just like Google is doing at present. True wisdom dictates that you let the vast majority of those volumes return to the soil from whence they came, so new volumes will grow. A library ought to be a lively place filled with a few living tomes, not an ossuary filled with everyone's old bones. What is Web 2.0 but an all-encompassing library? It forces you to be a researcher, not a reader. A searcher, not a seeker. It's an overgrown garden in desperate need of pruning.

In one of his essays, Jacques Barzun identifies the various characteristics of an Alexandrian age (like our present one), chiefly among them its mania for reference works. He wrote his piece two decades before Wikipedia, googling, and the exponential growth of tagged archival material, when one could still see the forest from the trees. These days our vision of the whole is obliterated by the proliferation of meaningless details. It takes a lot of computing power and some pretty sophisticated algorithms to sell you a reasonable picture of a chaotic world. It takes a lot of stomach and heart to breast the informational wave bearing down on you every day. No wonder the scared and lonely go running off after god.

It takes a lot of spine to declare a book out-of-print and take it off the shelf, to sell it to Powell's and let somebody else chew on its old arguments and moldy syntax. But it must be done. Your shelves are groaning, your e-reader is full, even the bounteous clouds promised by the techno-savants are bursting with old data. It must be done. No time to be sentimental or sad. Nip those feelings in the bud -- there'll be time to grieve afterwards. You think you'll miss all those books, all those words? Don't worry, the best of them will be saved and repackaged, just for you. Shakespeare for a new generation, Homer on the Kindle. Austen as a screenplay, Tolstoy as an app. The greats will always be our contemporaries, even as their contemporaries feed the soil. Be thankful you can forget most of what you've read and heard.

Most books are fleeting dreams you half-remember through a veil. After reading them, you may feel a certain cognitive dissonance, as though you're in the world but not of it, or perhaps a little mood overtakes you, or later, walking down the street, you hear an unbidden phrase in your inner ear, misremembering its source. A woman in a blue dress comes out of the subway and brushes past you. It's a scene out of a novel, some book you read, isn't it? There's something so familiar about her. The title is on the tip of your tongue. It was about a case of mistaken identity, wasn't it? Maybe you can find it online. Or maybe you're just making it up.

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