Sunday, January 04, 2004

Not So Splendid

I had started on this post yesterday when I was interrupted by a phone call from my mom and my sister in California. Mom got a cell phone from sis and so had to learn how to use it, and since they called we chatted. And chatted. And chatted. My dear Bookman commented that I sure do give a lot of "A's" to the books I read. I noticed that. I want to say that it is because I am so selective, only reading books that are good. But how can I know what book is good before I read it? Do I not read books that are "risky" in some way, ie experimental or from an unknown author or on an unknown subject? Or maybe I am too lenient in grading the books I do read? I must admit I am reluctant to give a book an "F," even a "D." Maybe I am just lucky in the choice of my reading material? I am unable, at this time, to reach a conclusion. I will turn instead to a not so splendid book. It all began a number of years ago when I checked out A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes from my public library. A wonderful book about bibliomaniacs and book collecting. It made my own "gentle madness" pale in comparison. Then in 2002, Basbanes came out with Patience and Fortitude, also about book people but with more of a focus on libraries. It wasn't as good as the first book, but enjoyable nonetheless. And then in 2003, Basbanes concluded his series on book people with A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. I had been looking forward to Splendor since Basbanes mentioned it his introduction of Patience and Fortitude. I am fascinated and a little worried by the debate over books and whether or not they are on their way out to be replaced by handheld e-books. I wanted to know what Basbanes had to say on the matter. Did he think books were really going electronic and if so, how was that going to affect the world of book collectors and libraries? He interviews people who are in the thick of the debate, ones who think the book as we know is in its death throes, ones who are trying to preserve the fragile books printed on acid paper, and ones who are creating the software and devices for e-books. It is an interesting debate and well presented in the book. It also took a long time to get there. Splendor could have benefited from an introduction. Instead it just leaps in and I was left wondering what the point of it was. The first half of the book is about books and scrolls and clay tablets from hundreds of years ago that have been unearthed and preserved. There is a history of the Rosetta Stone, a discussion of Linear A and Linear B and Etruscan. Good historical information, but what was the point? It wasn't until about half way through the book when Basbanes turned to modern day destruction of books--The National Library in Bosnia, the Museum in Iraq, Nazi Germany, Tibet, Pol Pot--that I understood what the first half of the book was about. It was almost as though the first half of the book were added on because the second half wasn't long enough. When we finally get to the people who are involved with the books, collecting, preserving, considering their future, the pace finally picks up. These quirky people are why I wanted to read the book in the first place. We have preservationists who think that mircofilming a book is good enough preservation, you have a picture of it, why do you need the original? We have others who have created plans for digging out the inside of a mountain and storing our most precious books there. And perhaps the most extreme, there are some who think we should create an archive on the moon, it being a good place to preserve things and centrally located for when we spread out into space and begin to colonize other planets. I can just imagine, "Oh honey, since you'll be in the area, can you drop my library book off at the moon and pick up the other one I have on hold there?" What would happen though if a meteor hit the moon? So much for the library. And then we finally get to The Debate. Basbanes points out to many of the people who are predicting the demise of the book that the books they have written about it are all printed on paper. Well of course, they say, they realize the irony of this, but you have to print the information in the format that people are reading. It does not appear that the book is about to disappear any time soon. It is interesting though that the people who are creating the e-book that is sure to take over from the traditional book are creating a book with thin pages made of computer screens so people can still turn pages. The books can be bound in leather or cloth and will have about 400 "pages." The biggest difference being that you can have you entire personal library in one book. While the technology is improving this device is still a long way from being usable. Splendor wasn't so splendid, but it was still enjoyable. I wouldn't recommend it, however, unless you like reading about the topic. As a casual read, it just doesn't work.