»  The Straggler, No. 104

July 18th, 2011

   Ex Libris

Miss Straggler, just graduated from high school and with time on her hands, came home the other day with two boxes of second-hand books on the back seat of the car. "Found them outside Book Revue," she explained, naming the local independent bookstore. "There was a sign saying to please take them."

The books were mainly fiction. Going through the boxes, I recognized most of the names from idle hours spent mooching around at the newsstands in airports and railroad stations: Maeve Binchy, Stephen Coonts, Dick Francis, Patricia Cornwell … Good capable storytellers, I have no doubt, and on my scale of values well deserving of the fame and fortune I hope they have accumulated; just not writers I have ever engaged with.

In among the Binchys and Coontses were some sci-fi oldies I thought I might re-acquaint myself with if I ever have the free time. I pulled them out and left the rest to my daughter, who, to judge by the week or so the boxes have since sat undisturbed, has lost interest. Life lesson, Honey: Just because a thing is free, you don't necessarily have any use for it. I suppose Binchy & Co. will end up on the curb one garbage-collection day. That's OK. I can be sentimental about books up to a point, but uninvited second-hand lowbrow bestsellers are well beyond that point.

I have too many books anyway. The family joke, when a new package arrives from Amazon or Abebooks, is for Mrs Straggler to ask what we shall do when there is no more space in the house for new books, to which my customary response is: "Buy a bigger house." It's not just my own purchases clogging up the shelves, either. There is a steady incoming stream of comped books. If you write for magazines, most especially if you do much book reviewing, you end up on the Rolodexes of all the marketing assistants of all the publishing houses in the English-speaking world. It's nice of them; it saves me the trouble of reading their catalogs to know what's forthcoming; and I've been comped some gems I treasure; but space is getting to be a problem.

Given that random element of comped books, and the fact that I don't bother about bindings, inscriptions, or first editions — I just want to read the things — I consider myself not really a book collector, merely a book amasser. The other day, for the first time, I quantified the mass.

My colleague Tony Daniels had recently told me that when changing his main domicile from England to France he moved five tons of books. Tony had explained, borrowing a figure from the great Dr Malthus: "I buy books at a geometric rate, but read only arithmetically." Five tons! It had sounded mighty impressive at the time. In an idle moment at home, however, I got to work on my own library with a tape measure and bathroom scales. Reckoning an average 15 pounds to the foot, my 250 feet of shelved books comes in at close to two tons — not quite in Tony's league, but getting there.

The space problem is made worse by the difficulty of getting rid of books nowadays. The aforementioned Book Revue has a small secondhand section, but it is heavily prejudiced towards the Binchy-Coonts demographic. No market there for The Test of Our Times (Tom Ridge's Homeland Security memoir) or Coolidge's Treatise on Algebraic Plane Curves (a classic in its field, but I have two copies). When I settled in this town twenty years ago there were two stores selling only second-hand books. Either would give you five dollars for a box of books, however recondite or battered. Both have now gone. "They're online," people tell me. So how do I get my books to them? I had it explained to me, but the only thing I retained is that the process is way more troublesome than putting a box of books on the passenger seat of my car and driving to Main Street.

The 2,000-year reign of the paged paper book may anyway be coming to its end. The written word, like everything else, is fast being digitized. Our local shopping center used to feature a Tower Records store right next to a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Then one day, five or six years ago, the Tower Records store had gone. I asked one of the Barnes & Noble sales clerks what had happened to it. "Out of business," he explained. "Nobody wants music on CDs any more. Heck, you can just download it." Then, as I was turning away, he added: "And we're next." Probably he was right. On my commuter train nowadays I see as many of those Kindle gadgets as actual books.

It seems an awfully fragile arrangement. Given that all the bits and bytes on all the world's servers could be annihilated by a major solar storm of the type that, astronomers tell us, occurs once per 500 years, or even just by some out-of-control cyberwar, are we really sure we want all human knowledge uploaded to the internet? But then I suppose similar arguments were made when paper books first came in. I can imagine some Babylonian scribe scoffing at the fad for papyrus scrolls as he sends the cuneiformed blocks of his latest potboiler off to the kiln to be baked: "Where's the archival value? Some fool knocks over a candle and — whoosh! — there goes your library!" He was in fact right, as at least three chief librarians at Alexandria found out, to Western Civ's irrecoverable loss.

And speaking of burning books, what will happen to book-burning as an expression of disapproval, or of absolute power? "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings," said Heinrich Heine, simultaneously looking back to the Inquisition and forward to modern totalitarianism. (Prophetically in the latter case: The Nazis burned his books.) In Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 the authorities of a philistine, hedonistic future U.S.A. maintain squads of "firemen" to seek out and burn all books. What would be the digital equivalent? I suppose the Grand Inquisitor could just click the "Erase All" button on some master app, but it doesn't have the same dramatic force. I feel sure we shall come up with something better.