What concerns me about the literary apocalypse that everybody now expects--the at least partial elimination of paper books in favor of digital alternatives--is not chiefly the books themselves, but the bookshelf. My fear is for the eclectic, personal collections that we bookish people assemble over the course of our lives, as well as for their grander, public step-siblings. I fear for our memory theaters.
There was a time when I thought I could do without much of one. As a student in college and graduate school, moving from room to room virtually every year, the desire to keep my possessions down to what could be stuffed into a Toyota Corolla overwhelmed the reptilian instinct to collect. That in itself became a pleasurable asceticism, and it suited my budget. As so often accompanies renunciation, I came to love the forbidden objects--the books--more and more. I learned to bind and sew my own, to cut the pages, and to print, illustrate, and letterpress them. Exactly because space was so limited, I could spend an entire Sunday afternoon at a certain used bookstore agonizing over several possible purchases, of which I would allow myself only one.
Mainly, during that time, my bookshelf was a rotating amalgam of whatever my heart desired from the library--and these were really good university libraries, with miles of shelves and easy access to interlibrary loan. On a whim, I could flit to the cavernous stacks and pick up an answer to whatever curiosity crossed my mind. Along the way to finding it, I'd end up grabbing a few more books that attracted me. Those ugly buildings--they were always ugly--became more than homes away from home. Walking into one, I'd feel as if entering an annex of my own nervous system.
But eventually, inevitably, I moved on from the plenty of universities to a string of tiny New York apartments. My little library came with me. In the months that followed, after a countdown of email warnings, my off-campus access to the University of California's online databases went dead. By then I had already learned that, as sprawling as the New York library systems were, they couldn't satisfy me like the academic ones had before. Getting there took not just a stop on the way to class, but a subway ride and a trudge through the cold. Most of what I wanted, anyhow, was in the closed stacks at 42nd Street, and I couldn't take anything there home with me past the watchful guard of the lions out front.
It was, finally, just me and my bookshelf. At first it wasn't even a shelf at all, but piles of books scattered around my room on the floor, as orderly as I could manage and as high as they'd get before tumbling. The collection I had was a good one--largely unfashionable theologies, seductive philosophies, and my prized bestsellers from the 1970s about ancient alien gods and futures unrealized--but so much was missing. I was in New York to write and to think, and I would find myself turning to those stacks in desperation for a connection, a memory, or the loosest association. What suddenly became most evident were the absences, the missing books I could hazily remember having read and digested, yet which would need referring to again. They had turned, terrifyingly, into phantom limbs.
Having at last found a stable place to live, one with wooden shelves already mounted on the walls, I shed the old asceticism and began the process of reassembly. Review copies that come in the mail have helped, and I balance out their novelty with trips to the dustier corners of bookshops and antique stores. But just as I've begun holding on to books, the technology of paper and print drifts into obsolescence, with only unfulfilled techno-corporate promises to replace them. The point here isn't to be steampunk; I'll take my library in any form, so long as it will never abandon me again. Something very basic is at stake.
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