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 citytype@globe.com.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

My photo on the home page is by Peter Urban.
The cover of my book, Afterwords, was designed by Kate Misail.
The painting on the cover of the book, which is also pictured on this page, is by Eric Sealine.

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