An Endangered Species in its Natural Habitat

Yesterday, I organized my new library.

As academics go, I am a burgeoning book collector (but that’s okay since I’m also a burgeoning academic), but for a normal person I certainly have acquired a great many books.

As I was ripping everything off the shelves and stacking into neat piles sorted by subject, I couldn’t help but wonder if I truly am living on the edge of an era.  With e-publishing and e-readers gaining so much popularity (and I’ll be the first to admit: they are damned convenient), are my proverbial children doomed to live book-free existences?

Some time ago, I was made aware of the following video:

This is most definitely a situation in which I am uncertain whether to laugh or to cry.  Slightly too true to be comfortable, this statement echoes my 1984 vision of a futuristic totalitarian universe in which books are disbanded from the common practice and no longer things that people are familiar with.

The true tragedy is this: books are more than just their contents.  Anyone who has become enraptured with a series or author, anyone who has studied literature, anyone who has depended upon a book for companionship (hush, I was a lonely child) will tell you that books are actually fetish objects.  Yes, a book is a collection of words, but more than that it’s something sturdy to hold onto.  It’s something you can (and do) take with you anywhere to provide solace, comfort, or camaraderie.   As I organized my books, I wasn’t just putting objects on shelves.  There was also a part of me that was re-living the sundry times of my life which these icons represented.  I was remembering the vacation when Harry Potter IV was released and I spent the last two days holed up racing to finish the book before returning to school and my friends (who, obviously, would have done the same).  I was reminiscing about the corner bookstore in Dublin which sold only books in Irish where I acquired my Gaeilga/Béarle dictionary because you can’t really get them in the United States.  I was thinking about the day when I rescued my great-uncle’s complete matched set of Dickens from a slow painful death by mold in my Grandmother’s basement library.

I have mixed feelings about the epub revolution.  While I certainly am going to be grateful that my leap to the iPad will mean far fewer boxes for my next move (I go through trade paperbacks like you wouldn’t believe), the fact that personal (and even public) libraries may have numbered days saddens me. I think my feelings on the matter can best be summed up by Mister Charles Lamb:

“What a place to be in is an old library! It seems as though all the souls of all the writers that have bequeathed their labors to these Bodleians were reposing here, as in some dormitory or middle state. I do not want to handle, to profane the leaves, their winding-sheets. I could as soon dislodge a shade. I seem to inhale learning, walking amid their foliage; and the odor of their old moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of those sciential apples which grew amid the happy orchard.”

Borders’ closing really cements the true beginning of the end for people who, like me, get a thrill out of browsing the shelves.  Of course, the bookstore and the library are two very different places, but somehow the permanent destruction of any bastion of oak shelving seems like a coup to the literary world at large.

In any case, I take small comfort in the fact that my library is safe and organized.  It may not have matched oak shelving yet, but it’s not going anywhere.