June 1, 2003
The Time, the Space, the Presence of Books
Forget the paperless office. Sven Birkerts pictures a paperless
world in which a vegetation virus can be stopped only by destroying
all paper. All newspapers, junk mail, manila file folders, love
letters--gone. And all books. In his essay, "The Book Reconsidered:
A Fantasia," Birkerts, an essayist and critic and author of
My Sky Blue Trades and The Gutenberg Elegies, tries to imagine a
world without books.
What is it about books? Technology could do away with them. Written
communication could continue, maybe faster and more efficiently.
But books are more than simply carriers of words, and a world without
them sounds like a world seriously diminished.
In A Book of Books, photographer Abelardo Morell considers the solid
physical presence of books. In the eye of Morell"s camera a
portrait peers out from slightly parted pages, a bookcase rises
like the Tower of Babel, water-damaged pages swell and crest, a
dictionary"s thumb-index stands like a wall of cave dwellings,
a shaft of light falls across raised printing for blind readers.
"I am drawn to how a book looks as a physical reality,"
Morell says. "Books carry their experience. They can even approximate
human feelings. They grow old and people grow old. Books can be
cocky, shy. If a book is damaged, there is the perversity of something
beautiful coming out of tragedy. A book has a certain sense of goodness,
as a stand-in for buildings and people and feelings."
The magic of a book is that it gives us an alternate world to enter
and get lost in. The past months with their alarming news and extreme
weather reminded us of how we turn to books for comfort. Says Birkerts,
" A book creates an externalized atmosphere of inwardness.
When we open a book we are, in fact, entering a different space,
stepping into it. We say, for instance, that we"re Œin
the middle" of War and Peace.
"We have the physical experience that the rest of the book
is there waiting for us. It feels four-dimensional and the fourth
dimension is the time represented by those pages. Just handling
books is gratifying. In some way that is hard to pin down, the very
physicality of a book represents spiritual and physical currency,
whether it ia open or not There"s the physical experience that
the rest of the book is there for you, a symbol of potentiality.
There is always that content that"s hidden until you"ve
Œun-hidden" it. After you read it, it goes back into hiding."
And who has not had the experience of re-reading an old favorite
and discovering something new? As Birkerts points out, a book remains
the same, but we change around it. We bring something new to it
with each reading.
"A book is like a companion," says Morell. "It"s
something real next to you. What a gift--finding time and space
and opening a book. The characters who live inside may not have
seen the light in a long time "
Time spent with a book has a distinct quality to it, according to
Birkerts. "It"s durational time, a kind of deep time that
is different in texture from time spent driving or doing laundry
or eating cereal."
It also claims its space, whether you read alone in a wing chair
beside a fire or feel a book close around you in a busy airport.
Just being around books has a distinct atmosphere; being in a bookstore
does not feel like being in a hardware store.
"There is a different feeling in the air when you are in a
library or in someone"s own library," says Birkerts. "It"s
similar to being in a museum. Each separate work of art represents
a different, more intense version of the world."
Electronic books, for all their efficiency, don"t do that.
They can duplicate the words, but not the sense of being enveloped
by them. In Morell"s photograph of a dictionary viewed on-screen,
the thumb-index that will never be thumbed looks impotent and silly.
The tactile presence of the page is gone.
Birkerts recalls his attempts to read books on a computer screen
as "profoundly depressing. What you were taking away was the
feeling of stepping into it. If you"re scrolling through the
pages, no matter how much you know about technology, it feels as
if it"s coming to you from elsewhere."
Birkerts created his unsettling bookless world for the recent Words
on Fire festival that commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Nazi
book burnings and the "resilience of the human spirit and lasting
power of the written word." At first, in his fantasy, people
get used to reading onscreen. They are, in fact, a little stunned
to realize that nothing much has changed. And then little by little,
a hunger for visceral connection to the written word grows. Revolutionaries
dare to scrawl their words on one surface after another, until,
finally, "the surface of the world itself became a page."
City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If
you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at email@example.com.