“Well, tell her that I miss our little talks…”

I’m not a book collector, but I am a book accumulator, so I haunt the D.C. area’s secondhand shops in joyful hope of discovering something peculiar and new. Other blogs charmingly document the personal detritus we slough off in our books, but I never find anything to get the Antiques Roadshow crowd all aflutter. Sometimes, I find something better.

While rummaging around the Second Story Books Warehouse recently, I spotted Because the Sea is Black, a 1989 collection of translated poems by Blaga Dimitrova, a Bulgarian anti-communist writer who served as her country’s vice president in the early 1990s. I’d never heard of Dimitrova, but I was happy to meet a new poet for the price of a $7.50 paperback. I was also intrigued by a translator’s note reminding Americans that “writers who live where not everything can be said with impunity develop strategies for expressing concerns that are mortal.”

As with many modern translations, this one doesn’t make clear the poems’ original forms. Dimitrova’s poetry is rendered in semi-free verse intermingled with wordplay and rhyme—although sharp, rhythmic, fun-to-recite passages like this one encouraged me to read on:

                           Memory, what does it mean
to be clear? To be ice? To be twice? To be more?
We are gasping with asking since infancy, answerless—
What is the name of the cure?

The big surprise, though, was the half-title page, where I found an inscription:

To Mr. Boorstin

With thanks
for your report,
that it mooved [sic]
me deeply —
Bl. Dimitrova

21.IV 93


“Mr. Boorstin” is prolific historian Daniel J. Boorstin, author of The Discoverers and The Creators and Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987. What were he and Dimitrova doing in Jerusalem? An L.A. Times story tells me that they were tasked with kicking around the dreary question of writers as “moral guardians”:

The invitation to be “the conscience of the world” may have seemed like one any writer would accept. Here was a chance to denounce “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans, starvation in Somalia, anti-Semitism in Europe, racism in America.

But one after another, 16 leading novelists, poets, historians, biographers, essayists and publishers declined the invitation during the Jerusalem International Book Fair this week. At a two-day forum co-sponsored by the fair and the Aspen Institute, many also warned of the danger of any writer acting as a moral arbiter.

“Why is a writer more capable of being a conscience than a jurist or an educator or a philosopher?” asked David Grossman, an Israeli whose books have explored the difficult relationship his country has with Palestinian Arabs and examined the moral dilemmas that result. “No one can serve as someone else’s conscience.”

Cynthia Ozick, an American novelist, poet and literary critic, spoke even more sharply: “Being a writer myself, I know what kind of people we are—and I don’t trust us. Writers are after power, and when writers meddle in politics it can be a cover for their drive for power.”

The L.A. Times article doesn’t report what Boorstin said that left Dimitrova “deeply moved,” but it does provide a snippet of her musings:

The forum concluded that conscience was necessary to inform a writer’s work, wrong as a role for the writer in society, yet in some ways inevitable as they faulted others who would perform the same function.

“A politician and a writer speak with two different languages,” Dimitrova observed, “and it is very dangerous when they get mixed together but we all do this.”

Twenty years on, I don’t know that poets, journalists, novelists, and critics are still this hesitant to declare themselves our consciences.

Dimitrova died in 2003. Boorstin died in D.C. in 2004, and based on the number of signed books I’ve found, I’m thinking the less valuable bits of his poetry library ended up at Second Story. (Sic transit gloria mundi: The remnants of Jack Kemp’s personal library also clutter the bookshelves just three aisles away.)

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know if Boorstin and Dimitrova genuinely liked each other, or if Dimitrova’s inscription represents anything but professional courtesy, but discovering it amid half a million moldering books makes clear how writers—and the words they labor to perfect—slip so readily into oblivion.

That’s reason for reflection, not despair. It’s a worthier challenge to roam the stacks, using this one slim relic of Blaga Dimitrova to find in endless spines not squandered lives, but infinite creation:

Breathing, we go blind
to what exists—whole universes!—
right here, next to us.

“Cover my eyes and ears, ’til it all disappears…”

“I feel like I spent the day scooping out portions of Mondoville’s memory—lobotomizing an educational institution,” writes Prof Mondo, lamenting a book-cull at his small college library:

We’re getting rid of some 25,000 volumes, somewhere between a quarter and a third of our overall holdings. To be fair, something had to be done. Our building is simply inadequate for our collection, many of the books are obsolescent, and many others hadn’t been opened in years — indeed, a colleague of mine found a set of Thomas Hardy’s works, many of which had unopened pages. The library has been held together with spit and baling wire, thanks to an overworked, underpaid, and insanely dedicated staff.

Furthermore, our students are ever less likely to venture into the stacks. They do their research online, relying on the library’s online databases to find articles and such.

The good prof finds the cull troubling for many reasons, but he ends on this desolate note:

Finally, there was the sense that I was engaged in a kind of intellectual Black Mass, inverting the sacrament that I was meant to perform. I love my students, but I also love the worlds of literature and ideas; indeed, I show my love to my students by offering them these other things I value so much. These books, these ideas in them, matter so much to me that I’m devoting my life to the business of letting those stories and ideas survive another generation. But instead, I spent today making it that much less likely that a Mondovillian might encounter someone’s story or idea, even through a confluence of idleness and serendipity. Education is meant to help the mind grow, and I see libraries as symbols of the growth that has gone before us. Instead, I spent today making our symbol shrink. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the opposite of what I do.

Also today, at the Atlantic Monthly, Megan McArdle makes a not-unrelated observation:

Today, according to Amazon, eBooks have surpassed print books entirely; they are selling more Kindle editions than they are selling from all of their print formats combined. Since April 1st, they’ve sold 105 Kindle books for every 100 print editions.

The speed is remarkable, but the outcome doesn’t surprise me.  I buy almost everything for Kindle now, unless it doesn’t have a Kindle edition, or it has lots of pictures that I want to examine in detail.  Which is to say, not many.  Frequently, if it doesn’t have a Kindle edition, I don’t order it at all.

McArdle is generalizing about trends in reading solely from her own experience, but I don’t mind countering with anecdotes of my own.

* * *

For example, if a pundit needed to research the background of the Icelandic financial crisis, the 2010 book Wasteland with Words: A Social History of Iceland might be a boon. Unfortunately, it’s not available as an e-book. Neither is The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness, the first English-language bio of the author who brought Icelandic culture to the notice of the world. A clever pundit might know to allude to his novels.

If you’re dabbling in verse, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics is indispensable (and addictively browseable). Many of its entries contain better, more, or just different information than you’ll find online. This 1,383-page tome has been in print for nearly 20 years, and apparently it still sells well, but there’s no Kindle edition.

For several years, I’ve wanted my students to read Brian Stone’s translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure. I don’t know why Penguin Classics let it fall out of print. Fortunately, you can buy it used for two bucks or read it for free in hundreds of North American libraries. There’s no Kindle edition.

Last Thanksgiving, I made jawārish, a carrot jam from a 13th-century Islamic cookbook. Published in 2009, Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World is packed with neat recipes and commentary. There’s no Kindle edition.

* * *

“But wait,” I hear yon straw man cry, “who cares about Icelandic social history? Who but you wants to read an encyclopedia entry about the Ultraism movement in Spanish poetry? And seriously, dude, medieval Islamic carrot jam?”

The digital age is supposed to help all of us pursue our passions and explore our intellectual interests. Ostensibly smart people—journalists, especially—shouldn’t endorse only what’s mainstream or popular or shut out sources of information because they don’t appeal to one’s sense of novelty.

It’s troubling for a pundit at The Atlantic to say, essentially, “If it doesn’t exist for my cool new e-reader, then as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t exist.” That’s an admission of willful ignorance—and we already have problems with journalists who can’t see beyond their own worlds.

Besides, medieval Islamic carrot jam is tasty.

* * *

“You must be a Luddite!” Guess again, scarecrow. I share my home with thousands of books, but I’m increasingly unsentimental about them. Becoming Charlemagne is doing well on the Kindle, I’ve self-published an e-book of a translation of a medieval romance, I’m reading Ulysses on my smartphone, and I’m in the market for a 10-inch Android tablet for reading and storing academic PDFs. Liking technology doesn’t make you anti-print. You can be pro-both.

* * *

Another rustle from the straw: “Eventually, everything will be online!”

Verily, I say unto you: Are you so positive that we’ll have several more decades of the stability and prosperity required to digitize “everything” that you’ll bet centuries of accumulated knowledge on it?

I fled grad school 13 years ago, but I’d love to be a budding medievalist now, when I can access online dictionaries for Latin, Old English, and Old Icelandic and browse the Monumenta Germaniae Historica without schlepping over to campus. I’m keenly aware of how much progress universities, government agencies, corporations, and museums have made in digitizing material that many dismiss as obscure.

And yet, two years ago, at the National Park Service archive, I glimpsed just how far we have to go. Around 2,000 of the best photos in their historic image collection are online, but their physical archive holds millions of objects, including posters, newsletters, snapshots, and un-photographed doodads like vintage ranger uniforms. The entire collection was overseen by just two employees. When they weren’t scrambling to fulfilling never-ending requests from commercial publishers and calendar makers, they occasionally found a moment to scan some old slides. At this rate, unless a legislator takes up their cause, most of their collection will languish forever in file drawers.

So if you’re a pundit, a historian, or a photo editor and you’re relying on digitized stuff to tell a story, you’re likely spinning the same yarn as everyone else. To tell a bigger story, to show or say something new, you’ll need to push away from the computer and patiently seek out an archive.

* * *

Megan McArdle concludes:

What will happen to the pleasures of pulling a random book from the shelves of a home where you are a weekend guest?

They’ll be replaced by other pleasures, like instant gratification.  And it’s probably more gain than loss.  But I’m just a little bit sad, all the same.

It’s not just about “pleasures.” What about the brainy kid whose parents are either too poor, too disdainful of education, or just too ignorant to give him a Kindle or an iPad? Yes, nearly anyone who wants Internet access can get it, and inquisitive kids are resourceful kids, and the Internet offers brilliant opportunities for intellectual exploration—but there’s no reason to diminish or destroy one convenient, low-tech, time-tested way to feed the brain.

“But you know,” croaks yon straw man, flailing his arms, “it’s expensive to store books in a big building and pay for a staff to maintain them.” Of course it is—but preserving and propagating knowledge is a core function of a college or university. Most American campuses have dozens of costlier programs and facilities that would wither if anyone were challenged to justify their educational merit.

Harvard isn’t trashing a quarter to one-third of the books in its libraries or turning them into glorified Internet cafes. If your college your kid attends is, you may want to ask a dean why they assume their graduates will never compete against kids with big-name degrees. (You might also ask them: “Would you send your child here?”)

* * *

But then why would most people associate libraries with learning anymore? Ads in D.C. Metro stations tout public libraries as places to take yoga classes and hold meetings, and the library system’s website assures the aliterate that a new library “offers more than just books.” (Whew! No one will think you’re a nerd!)

My own neighborhood branch is extremely popular, and the staff is terrific, but when lawyers in million-dollar homes use their library cards to check out government-subsidized Backyardigans DVDs for their kids, we aren’t exactly living the Carnegie dream.

* * *

Maybe there’s hope. In November, I sat in a bayou and beguiled my seven-year-old nephew with the exploits of Beowulf. Last week, by phone, he told me that during a recent visit to the local library, his quest for a sufficiently gory version of Beowulf led him to books about Theseus and the minotaur, the labors of Hercules, and Odin and Loki.

These books may change the course of his life; they may be a fad. Either way, a first-grader in rural Louisiana senses what pundits and college administrators forget: Random access to analog information is a freedom all its own. The Internet is wondrous, and e-readers are great, but if you let technology circumscribe and define your intellectual world, you literally won’t ever know what you’ve missed.

“The tap-tap-tapping of the typewriter pays…”

Twenty-three years ago this month, I convinced my folks to drive me to the toy store to buy something that toy stores no longer sell. Most people didn’t know what a modem was, but when I whipped up an ASCII animation showing us making the trip as a family and emerging in triumph from the Toys R Us, my parents were amused enough to give me a lift, if understandably skeptical. In 1986, the online world was too tiny to be mythologized. Wild stories about local kids “changing the positions of satellites up in the blue heavens” sometimes made the news, but online bulletin-boards were “here there be dragons” outlands for all but a few, and no one noticed gaming pioneers as they racked up monstrous Compuserve bills playing Hangman at 300 baud.

Lacking any real plan, I used my modem to connect to a suburban archipelago of slow, single-line BBSes, not knowing that the experience would teach me how to write. A few years later, when I was the only English major banging out e-mail on an X-term in the basement of the computer science building, I didn’t know I was an early adapter of a network that would soon link millions of offices and homes while uprooting the business models of several industries, including publishing. I only knew that I sensed opportunity.

I thought about those days when I read Jake Seliger’s post about a New York Times article pointing out the obvious: the online market for used books is a boon for readers. Jake wondered how cheap books will affect the business of publishing, and while I don’t know what the future holds for companies that can’t adapt, I told him I didn’t think a bonanza of secondhand books was necessarily bad for authors:

As someone who recently entered the publishing world as a lower-midlist author, I’ve thought quite a bit about the implications of the online market for used and discount books. When someone buys my book used on Amazon for $4 instead of paying $12 for a new paperback, that’s around 75 cents in royalties I don’t see—but I’d be awfully short-sighted to gripe about that, because the glorious churn of the used-book market may help me in the long run. Today’s budget-conscious undergraduate may be tomorrow’s history teacher; perhaps he’ll assign my book to his class of twenty students five years from now. Or maybe he’ll recommend the book to a friend who then downloads a copy to his Kindle, thereby putting around $2 in my pocket. Or maybe he hates the book so much that he strenuously avoids my next one, thus sparing me a one-star Amazon review that would have dissuaded potential readers.

Who knows? I do know that I’d be a fool to gripe about the Internet, because thanks to the Web–which includes everything from Amazon to bloggers to podcasts to the online BookTV archives—I’ve sold more copies of my book than the 50 or so secondhand copies currently listed on Amazon. Fretful authors and publishers who dread the advent of the hyper-efficient online book market may yet be vindicated, but I’m not convinced that budget-conscious book-buyers are the only ones who stand to benefit from it.

Compared to a fantasy world in which Amazon, the big bookstore chains, and used-book dealers simultaneously thrive (and where all of our orders are, presumably, delivered by a Deschanel sister on a flying unicorn), the current situation looks bleak—but as an author, a voracious book-buyer, and someone who’d be nowhere without the Internet, I prefer the here-and-now to the real world of twenty years ago, when a suburban “bookstore” was a nook in the mall stocked only with bestsellers, a few shelves of genre fiction, some classics, and the latest comic-strip anthologies.

Whether my career thrives or stalls, I’m glad I’m a writer now. I can get obscure articles in minutes rather then weeks, and people on the subway can use a telephone to order and read my books from stores that never close. Best of all, my cable modem is more than 6,500 times faster than the modem I bought in 1986, but it cost the same amount: around 60 bucks (or half the price in 1986 dollars). Confusion may be justified, but hold off on the Anglo-Saxon elegies; not everything is worse than it used to be.

“Think of every town you’ve lived in…”

You’re not supposed to love a chain store—but in the autumn of 1992, no one had ever told me that. Earlier that year, sophisticated friends had taken me to the Strand in New York and Shakespeare & Company in Paris, and I marveled at what I beheld. Outside of libraries, I had never seen so many books, and I crept through the aisles with palpable glee. Even so, when they told me that both sites were cultural landmarks, I didn’t know how to respond. Although my purchases should have proven otherwise, those great, sprawling bookstores just didn’t exist. Like museums and cathedrals, they were mirages we gawked at on brief urban field trips; there’s no way such places were real.

That winter, I came home from college, and soon heard that people were talking: they’d put a new bookstore out on Route 18, and everyone said it was huge. Skeptical, I headed for the highway, expecting another mall store, some glorified hallway with only the latest bestsellers; but at the end of a half-dead strip-mall, less than a mile from the local landfill, in front of a parking lot pitted with potholes and crags, was an oasis I’d never imagined.

Tables by subject, comfortable seating, intimate aisles with rich wooden shelves—I was overwhelmed. My small college town offered nothing like this, and I was doubly amazed to discover a “medieval studies” section, several shelves of books that I simply hadn’t known I could own. In the months that followed, I often returned, making many impulse purchases—The Kalevala, Njal’s Saga, The Poetic Edda, the works of Sir Thomas Malory—without foreseeing that one day I’d be teaching most of these books, sharing them with students who otherwise wouldn’t have known them.

I also didn’t foresee that after fifteen years, this bookstore, destined to be dubbed “underperforming,” would quietly go out of business.

On Sunday, shoppers lamented the store’s final week. “I’m so sorry you’re closing,” wailed one woman, accosting a startled clerk. “It’s going to kill me!” As I wandered the aisles the very last time, I was hardly as histrionic, because I couldn’t help noticing that where once there were no mega-bookstores within half an hour of where I grew up, now there are nearly twenty. The closing of one store may be worthy of wistfulness, but in our era of Amazon.com and convenient, coffee-mad superstores, the idea that such places can “underperform” should be cause for a satisfied smile.

We’re spoiled; we quickly forgot that on the eve of the invention of the first Web browser, a Borders store was such a big deal that we dragged out-of-towners to see it. Those big-city bookstores were somebody else’s; this box, full of futures, was ours.