THE DREAM YOU HOLD -- What We Might Gain
Four Metaphors for Books, Offered as Aid to the New Electronic Bookbinders










One of the best days of my life was stepping into my first university library and seeing all those glittering, peculiar books and realizing that my student ID doubled as a library card and that all these books were MINE (as mine as yours, anyway). I could take as many books as I wanted -- forty books at a time -- as long as I brought them back when I was done (or said I would).

At first I was conservative and careful, only checking out one book at a time and bringing it back the day I was finished. But when nothing bad happened, I started to get comfortable and greedy. No one else was taking advantage, so why shouldn't I eat, EAT for chrissakes?

The library was always empty. The august and sacred university I attended was in essence a trade school with football games. My professors were doddering and congealed: they each read the same ten books over and over again, no matter how many books were purchased on their behalf each semester with student tuition money.

So who were all these books for?

Town locals couldn't get a free library card. They could read books in the library during regular hours, but they couldn't check them out without paying. Anyway, town locals didn't care. They were too busy seeing "awesome live music," laughing real hard about new cartoons on television, and trying to remove more meat from food and clothing.

The six floors of the Perry-Castaneda library in Austin were the one place in Austin you were guaranteed NOT to meet some sexy decadent who wanted to hear about your favorite new band. You could walk the floors back and forth all day and night and not meet a single soul. The haunting emptiness in such a tremendous building stuffed with wisdom was like a vacuum cleaner attachment shoved up your ass that made your bowels twinge and curl.

The library was my plague ship at sea; my prison of exile where I could erect my own inner Pandemonium and fill it with all the sins, demons, and lusts I could cram inside me to watch burn and dance. A huge building shaped like Texas, the PCL was MY Texas.

Eventually, I realized that I was probably doing the library books a favor by circulating them. The books were in danger of becoming clotted blood. Covered in dust and decay, most of them hadn't been checked out since the sixties. And these weren't abstruse marginalia about esoteric subjects: I was reading pulp novels and porn, cycling back around every third book or so to one of the books on Columbia University's "Great Books" list out of spite and frustration regarding the education I was not receiving. When today's perversions lost their flavor, I dipped into the pulp and porn of previous centuries.

If I had been able to carry that library with me in my pocket -- hell, I might never have gone to college in the first place. A huge, bureaucratic state university can teach you not only to hate books like retail workers hate customers, but it can teach you worse, that books must be worshiped from afar like dead gods: not loved, enjoyed, torn apart, and consumed with a mind bent toward writing them.

So what will happen once everyone in the world can carry a library the size of a small city in their pocket? what will happen once everybody in the world has access to everything ever written?

And not only public domain "classics," but new books and also the books that time forgot -- books that never found their cult of passionate enthusiasts or debased gourmands.

People from the provinces read, become obsessed with reading, become writers, and then move to cities to sell their stories about the provinces. Only the world's sick, twisted, and self-destructive have classically had the will to bend their lives toward writing fiction. There are simply too many barriers. There is the poverty, the hard work, and the grueling process of editors, drafts, and self-promotion. What will happen when anybody in the world can toss off a novel in a weekend for anybody else in the world to read?

Here's what we'll get from ebooks and the 24 hour open access of all literature:

1). Poor people will be able to read whatever they want.

2). Rich people will have to find some other way to gild their minds other than parroting their passing cultural knowledge of difficult texts.

3). Dead books will be resurrected. Literature will finally become a pure meritocracy instead of a medium controlled by a selective chokepoint of publishers and investors.

4). The world will be glutted with an immense, rotten tide of bad writing. America's coasts may be swept away in the deluge.

5). Publishers and investors will morph into designers and promoters, advocating for new books as matters of taste and principle instead of to sell "copies." Publishing houses will shrink, merging into literary magazines. Literary magazines will serve the function of editing literature, pushing for specific literary agendas, courting advertisers, and shaking down readers for micropayments. The next generation of publishers will look a lot like hip-hop record labels, pulling fiction writers together to edit, promote, and write. Fiction writers will take turns getting each others books out to the people and working together to achieve the mutually satisfying goal of getting read.

6). We'll save some trees.

6). Libraries will become book museums. People might actually visit them.

7). Print copies of books will be like vinyl editions of records in an age of .mp3 players. They will be good to collect if you are an enthusiast, but ultimately will not be a good deal.

8). I don't want to alarm you, but ebooks could be BEAUTIFUL. I know in their current incarnation they are about as aesthetically appealing as that TV channel that tells you what is playing on other TV channels, but if people actually spent time and effort crafting ebooks, they could truly become small marvels that constantly challenge the definition of design itself. Persistent, web-hosted books could be constantly updated and tweaked, culminating in rich, beautiful structures -- the guts ripped out of novels, shined up, and made to glow. The reading experience of each electronic tome could be unique, targeted, and layered. The internet provides infinite space! To hell with counting pages! Given enough time, all books could be redesigned over the years with an eye toward opening them up to all their possible design idiosyncrasies. Instead of editions of books, there could be book "skins": modular overlays that convert your favorite books into specific forms and treatments that conjoin with your mood. As electronic paper becomes more powerful and easier to use, people may someday pick out books like they build custom cars: you design one beautiful book to spec, and then every time you open it, it is a new book with new text inside.

I am 27 and I have watched the internet sweep over everything in my lifetime, and I have never had the illusion that the thing that I love most would be spared.

My heart hurts like a thumb hit with a hammer to contemplate a world without print literature, or a world where print literature is secondary to electronic text.

But I am young enough to realize that I am an asshole for thinking this way.

Whole generations have lived and died without access to the stories and information I take for granted. Whole generations continue to live and die in this condition. For every bespectacled, privileged, crusty writer who just loooooooves her books, there are a hundred thousand starving, illiterate, wasted geniuses who never had a chance to write the best stories we've never read.

To stand in the way of making access to the world's literature universal, to stand in the way of reaching out and making the possibility of self-expression, self-discovery, and self-knowledge the God-given right of every curious sapient creature straddling planet Earth?

To even hesitate for a moment?

It's worse than burning books. It's choking dreams to death, like we've always done, the way we've always throttled the mewling, mutant kittens we fear.

What if we stopped doing that?

Posted by miracle on Wed, 18 Mar 2009 23:58:49 -0400 -- permanent link

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