Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The map of time

     I'll probably never know who left this book on the river wall along Wacker Drive, just where it stops going west and begins turning south (or, I suppose, where it stops going north, coming the other way, and turns east).
     Nor will I know why it was left there, exposed to the elements, for quite a while by the time I came by — far beyond any rescue. It was chilling, to see a book so abused. No doubt the product of carelessness, though it did seem to symbolize something larger, a place we are approaching in our society.  Already we've seen books sold by the pound, or with their covers ripped off and bundled with twine as some interior designer's daft idea of decoration. You walk into Half Price Books, and just sense that printed books are worth less. Not worthless, not yet anyway. But worth less than even a few years ago.
     I'm not going to lament the printed word—the electronic word will carry on just fine, just as we can still fill up our cars without gas station attendants. Seneca pressed his words in wax with a stylus — the original meaning of "book" was "writing tablet" (a very old, Teutonic word, The Oxford English Dictionary speculates that "book" and "beech" share a root, and that perhaps the tablets were made from the bark of beech trees). 
    In other words, the manner of writing has always changed, so let's not get too bent out of shape that the process continues. The words remain. The influence of the printed word will continue as countless ghosts in the electronic machine, just as the chapters of books now are thought to reflect the individual scrolls that were once gathered together into "books."
    It can be argued the form doesn't ultimately matter. It is what is being said, not the medium it is being said in.
    That is mostly true. But not entirely.
    The form had value. The drawbacks of books—expensive to print, unable to be corrected—were also their glory, also exactly why they were cherished. Scarcity creates value, and you couldn't get a copy of "Moby-Dick" everywhere you go. Now you can. The reason so much time and effort was put into making books as good as they could be (Sometimes. Let's not overstate the case) is you can't correct them. You have to get them right, because they are supposed to be around for a long time. Were supposed to be around for a long time. Now they're raw material in art projects and, I assume, someday, fuel.
      Books will migrate entirely onto pads and phones and what have you, but it will not be the same, and hybrid forms will quickly emerge that better use those mediums. People will enjoy whatever we call the new art form—maybe "books” still, the way we call the control panels on our cars "dashboards" even though there is no horse to dash and kick up mud. We will still be moved by them, and will look at our paper books with puzzlement and disinterest, the way people today look at player piano scrolls and stereopticon slides.
     They also have flaws. Books don't hold up well to the elements, for instance. Of course, they don't break apart when dropped, either. Different technology, different advantages and drawbacks. But technology can't be fought. Technology wins, eventually.
     The book, by the way, was a novel by Felix J. Palma called The Map of Time. 


  1. Did you look at it to see the title?
    If so, what was it?

  2. Yes, I had to go back through my notes -- I saw the book over the summer -- it's there now, last line.

  3. If the new technology gets more people reading, that's a good thing much like how many of us can now read this column.

  4. Speaking of corrections, I think you mean "Teutonic word" not "Tuetonic work." Unless you mean the OED is an old Tuetonic work. . . .nice tangle of a sentence.

    Here endeth the free-lance editing.

    1. You can edit me any time you like, Bill. Much appreciated. You know how I spent yesterday, from 7 a.m. at Montrose station until 7:30 p.m. at the History Museum. I'm amazed I wrote anything at all here.

    2. Sounds like a long day; what was up?

    3. Nothing that wasn't entirely your doing. Think about it.

  5. The first sight of that injured book put a lump in my throat; glad you picked it up, if only to discard it properly.

  6. As a young child I threw a book at my sister. My Granpa was angered and said "NEVER throw a book, they are always to be treated with respect. They are important to our exsistence!"

  7. Your sentence beginning "Books will migrate entirely onto pads and phones and what have you" took my breathe away for a minute. A world without books written so definitively - is this really where we are headed? I know I will then find myself like those who continued to use candles in their houses once electricity took over. Hey - looking on the bright side, Yankee Candle has a good business going so if they can still succeed 100+ years later there's hope there will still be books and booksellers 100+ years from now too.

  8. If you find a copy of Ethan Frome on the train, it's mine. Fortunately I was rereading it.


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