THE DREAM YOU HOLD -- What We Will Lose, No Matter What
Four Metaphors for Books, Offered as Aid to the New Electronic Bookbinders










I have this terrible fear.

After we have scanned every book ever written and done the difficult work of sustaining literary production without killing writers off, creating a vast and powerful electronic publishing industry that ensures that fiction writers still get paid for their craft and are still able to eat, breed, and live "normal" lives, we suddenly don't know what to do with all those leftover paper books that no one reads anymore.

Let's say we create twenty new powerful electronic publishing houses, all fighting to make beautiful illuminated electronic products, possessed by the same demons that overtook the Celtic monks and Arabic stylists, turning words into living magic that dash across imaginations like hot sauce instead of growing dry and diseased like cast-off onion skins in a refrigerator crisper.

In this perfect future, cutting down trees to create paper is considered tasteless and crass, and properly-raised children find the very sight of paper books to be barbaric in the same way that we might instinctively be revolted by a throne made of human bones in the cave of a primitive cannibal warlord.

These children of the future no longer associate the sharp smell of spicy mildew and the crinkle of parchment with their first, teetering journeys into their own psyches. Now, new readers are cradled into fiction by the glow of a flashing screen that illumines with the pizzazz of a sly cartoon cat instead of droning on like a musty, loveless pedant. On their deathbeds, people of the future are comforted by the hum of an electronic sphincter that reads them their last stories out loud as their oxygen tank pules and wheezes at their side.

Some antiquarians still find old paper books to be a peculiar curiosity and demand their preservation, but slowly these antiques fall apart and are chewed into tatters by time until there are only enough paper books left to fill a small library.

All the books that are left in the world -- a motley collection of instructional manuals, Korans, and a few leather-bound bestsellers from the 20th century, (vellum-pressed, custom-made personal copies of Roth, King, Pynchon, Rowling, and Rand) -- are sequestered in a climate-controlled bunker in the Vatican.

Yet, despite all efforts, one day there is a mysterious fire, and even these books disappear.

No one is much concerned. We have scanned all these texts a hundred times over and they can be perfectly replicated at will in instapresses which are themselves archaic. The scans are mirrored in databases all over the world, and access to the world's library is as simple as moving over to a wallscreen and touching it with a finger to make it come alive. If you want a space book or space sandwich, you just ride your space bike to the space store and give them space money.

And yet, the books are gone. The paper chronicle of the human condition has been replaced by an electronic database.

But here's my fear. What if one day a zealot rises to power, a zealot with a hunger for world domination that aches to refashion the human animal into a shape of her own choosing? It's happened before; it will happen again. What if the first step this zealot takes to gain control is to demolish history by finding all the books out there in the virtual world and deleting them? No matter how technologically advanced we are, on that day that we will experience apocalypse.

Or maybe the zealot is smarter than that. Maybe the zealot just inserts passages into every old book to prop up her rule. Maybe the zealot just deletes religious books, or books written about armed dissent. Maybe the zealot just deletes books that are critical to the new economic system that the zealot proposes.

Once, when all books were paper, this would have been impossible. But now a sufficiently ruthless person would have a fighting chance at destroying or distorting all literature forever: at using the tools of tomorrow to erase yesterday.

Point is, it's hard to burn every paper book. You can fucking try, but killing every paper book is like killing every person: they tend to breed while you are trying to round them up. But ebooks can all be deleted with nothing but a few simple programs that scan collected data and then prune it by command. Burning books requires people to light the fires; a program to destroy data will not have to overcome its conscience to accomplish its goals.

The only successful genocides in human history have all been carried out by virus.

Anyway, it's just a fear. Fear don't mean much.


What else will we lose when books are gone?

We'll lose the smells, sounds, and fetishes of an experience. We'll lose bloodstained pages and chocolate whirl fingerprints that mark mystery in the margins of hand-me down thrillers.

We'll lose falling asleep with a paperback open on your chest on a dead Sunday afternoon, where the lipid light is too weak for anything but reading, slumbering, or staring at a ceiling fan -- all three activities finally bleeding together into one throbbing haze.

We'll lose libraries and bookstores: huge rooms full of books stacked up so high you need a ladder to reach the top, partititions creating labyrinths out of the guts of human experience, rooms that swallow you whole and mesmerize you with the endless possibilities, humbling you, showing you the vastness of your ignorance and the circumscribed limits of attainable human knowledge.

We'll lose books being next to other books. No longer will you be able to tilt your head sideways and let your eyes crawl down the spines of a new lover's book collection while they remain asleep after your night of drunken mistakes. No longer can you thumb through their cherished volumes to see what sort of person you have seduced and what their tastes might be.

We'll lose cheap paperbacks found in the gutter, the pages fanned out like frizzy hair, pages loopy with crude drawings and cryptic suggestions. We'll lose the mystery of the found object, the unintentional pick-up, the unrecommended find.

We'll lose reading in the bathtub, that fine little glory, where you drag a book that you don't care about with you into the steam, rolling back the cover and turning the pages with one hand that you keep dry while sipping a cold beer with one hand that you keep wet.

We'll lose the furniture of books: books stacked up on coffee tables, books along walls, books filling every available surface like unstamped plates moving along an assembly line that crawls along too slow to see, an assembly line where the press is your mind, and the order of what's on deck changes with whim and taste.

We'll lose the draw of size and the draw of lightness. With an ebook, it's much harder to select a book based on length or weight. It is more difficult to peruse your shelves, looking for something immense that will last all week and become leftovers, or something bite-sized that you can devour between meals. Ebooks don't carry the same physical information that shapes text the way paper books do. Ebooks are all literally insubstantial.

We'll lose ownership of books. Never again will you get to have an exclusive book that only you know about, nor will you get the thrill of peppering your library with odd choices that bemuse and bedazzle.

We'll lose the urge to collect. No longer will people sedulously scour bookshops for missing gems for their personal libraries. No longer will people discover new books while searching for hard-to-find rarities. Instant gratification will result in dull, flabby minds that do not stretch toward the new.

We'll lose the drama of a ripping page.

We'll lose the "thup" noise when you crack a paperback open and the spine adjusts in your hands like a mastered pet.

We'll lose the fear of fire.

We'll lose the soul of a beautiful thing that has stood by us for thousands of years, better friends than any dog or god.


We'll have to work so hard to make a soul for this new thing. Harder than artists have worked in a long time.

But it can be done. It will take magic, pain, sacrifice, and horror. It will take corruption and brutality to fertilize the dry roots of this arid medium. But it will be worth it.

We stand to gain immense treasures from the universal adoption and ensoulment of ebooks. If we remember what books do, and we make sure to put ebooks to the same hidden tasks, we will be able to pass on the light of stories from the printed page into the glowing box. It won't be easy. It will be like making something beautiful out of automobiles while surrounded by horses. But if we are smart and wise and we work hard enough, we will find one day that we have carried the past to the future, and that the voice that winds through time is singing its pain again on the leaves in our hands. If we win this fight, we will still get to hold our dreams in our hands, and even our nightmares will applaud us.

Posted by miracle on Mon, 11 May 2009 01:42:45 -0400 -- permanent link

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