catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 3 :: 2011.02.11 — 2011.02.24


The age of stinky books is upon us

In Gary Shteyngart’s futuristic (but not very) and comic (but tragically so) narrative about the upcoming demise of the United States, Super Sad True Love Story, one of the signs of the Apocalypse is the fate of books.  You remember books.  Those hefty artifacts of paper, glue and ink that we used to cart from place to place, wondering why we’d brought so many with us.  Those things that used to thunk to our noses as we drifted off to sleep beneath their pages.  Surely you remember them?

I still have a few around the place, but I did not have one in my hands as I was reading Shteyngart.  I hardly know what to call his work.  No, not what genre — what sort of thing it was.  Narrative doesn’t seem quite right, even though that’s what I called it above.  But that doesn’t get at the substance of the thing.  E-book?  Document?  It does exist in the archaic book format, but that’s not what I was using to read it.  Last year, I surprised no one more than myself when I became an avid…hmmm, what do I call myself?  Reader of e-reader files?

At any rate, here’s a classic scene from the…from Shteyngart’s account. The main character, Lenny Abramov, is confronting the challenges of his dreary, anxious life by writing down (on “an actual sheet of paper!”) what possessions he has that he can celebrate.  Near the top of the list is his “Wall of Books,” something no one in his contemporary New York City environment values anymore.  Anticipating the arrival of a much younger woman with whom he wants to connect, Eunice Park, he considers his collection:

I counted the volumes on my twenty-foot-long modernist bookshelf to make sure none had been misplaced or used as kindling by my subtenant.  “You’re my sacred ones,” I told the books.  “No one but me still cares about you.  But I’m going to keep you with me forever.  And one day I’ll make you important again.”  I thought about that terrible calumny of the new generation: that books smell.  And yet, in preparation for the eventual arrival of Eunice Park, I decided to be safe and sprayed some Pine-Sol Wild Flower Blast in the vicinity of my tomes, fanning the atomized juices with my hands in the direction of their spines.

[I would footnote the above reference except that I don’t know how to.  Actual books have actual pages to note.  All I can tell you is that Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart was “published” by Random House in New York in 2010.  The reference above comes somewhere between location 913 and 926, but that’s only in Kindle editions.  So is this really helpful information to have?  Never mind.  You can probably just Google a phrase from the passage and you’ll have it.]

We will soon inhabit the world of stinky books.  That musty smell of densely-packed libraries that is the scenttrack of so many of my intellectual and cultural awakenings will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history, a place with presumably similar odors.  In its place will be the library of odorless glass and metal that is my smartphone.  Our patience for outmoded technologies will grow thin.  (Is there still a Society for the Advancement of Telegraph Usage?)  Our facility with the digital will grow.  And all those books that have been the symbol of the advance and preservation of civilization will look like an IBM Selectric Typewriter in a room full of Macs. 

I can’t write the panegyric to the printed text I thought I would be developing in response to the world of electronic reading devices.  I read more now rather than less.  I find myself discussing books and literature more.  My vocabulary has grown because I can press on a word and a dictionary definition pops up to enlighten me.

But I still appreciate books.  Next to me as I write this is a wonderfully bound Library of America volume of William Faulkner’s work with a cloth cover and red ribbon bookmark.  It seduces me with the promise of a truly sensual pleasure.  I will savor that book, its weight and its beauty and even its sound as it resonates when dropped on to a table surface.  I will savor it.  I just hope I read it.

As a person from the community of The Book, I feel slightly treasonous in adapting to the virtual read so readily.  But if the Word can be made flesh, it must be powerful and versatile enough to accommodate many platforms.  The question is whether we can sit still with the Word long enough, whether in leather- or app-bound format, to let it form us.  And despite the dystopian future Shteyngart sees, I am optimistic.  Because books are not “the sacred ones.”

your comments

comments powered by Disqus