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Brewster’s Ark
  • July 06, 2013 : 07:07
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I leave Tony’s and take a drive. It’s just before sunset, and before the night comes I want to visit my favorite reading room in the Pasadena Public Library, where I can browse in peace under the soft green lamplight. When I get off the freeway and hit what’s left of the orange trees, the humidity slowly climbs.

Maybe it’s the vodka and maybe it’s the weed. Maybe the terra-cotta statues have frightened me into submission. I start to think Kahle could be a good guy. Recently he traveled to Bali to present to the islanders, free of charge, a digital record of their entire written culture—a record that until now had been moldering on the backs of palm fronds. The number of hours required for that kind of curatorial work must have been staggering.

The Pasadena Public Library reading room is wood-paneled and furnished with leather armchairs. On the shelves you can find printed newspapers from around the world. There is a satisfying crinkle of paper pages slowly being turned. I find the books Tony recommends and bring them to an empty chair.

It turns out Kahle is right. Here in my favorite reading room I am on dangerous ground. The history of libraries is also the history of libraries being burned. Kahle doesn’t want to protect our books from a natural disaster—he wants to protect them from ourselves.

The city of Alexandria in Egypt, home of the papyrus industry, was the hub of the Mediterranean book trade for more than 500 years. Ancient sources claim that Aristotle’s private library furnished the seed collection from which the legendary library grew. It’s said that more than 700,000 scrolls were kept in one building alone. Then in 641 A.D. Caliph Omar allegedly instructed his generals, “If what is written…agrees with the Book of God, the scrolls are not required; if it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore.” Omar’s men packed up the holdings and carried them to the city’s hot baths, where the ancient civilization’s books fueled the furnaces for six months.

The Library of Alexandria’s fate is not unique. Emperor Shi Huangdi, after connecting the stone fortifications that make up the Great Wall of China, decided to destroy all written texts that dated before his dynasty. Chroniclers say he ordered the largest book burning in history. Before the invention of paper, books in ancient China were composed of handwritten characters on strips of bamboo, sewn together with silk thread like Venetian blinds. The emperor burned them all, then rounded up more than 460 “masters”—scholars, physicians, writers—and buried them alive. (Shi Huangdi died returning from a campaign against peasant uprisings; the terra-cotta warriors buried in modern-day Xi’an supposedly guard his remains.)

The Spanish conquerors of Mexico, as they introduced the Bible, destroyed all the painted Nahuatl books they could find—invaluable codices that included the only written information on the very people they wished to assimilate. The Aztecs were probably not surprised by this tactic. Their ruler Itzcóatl ordered the burning of the books of the peoples he conquered, the nomadic tribes of Mexica. Even the book-collecting Romans, worried about Druidic prophecies, burned thousands of Druid texts. Their burning didn’t help them avoid their own biblioclasms: Cicero’s fabled Palatine Library, copied and maintained by educated Greek slaves, mysteriously burned to ashes, as did the Octavian Library built by the Emperor Augustus. The Library of Congress was burned by the British during the War of 1812. (It burned again on Christmas Eve 1851, destroying nearly two thirds of its collection.) More recently, the Nazis bombed and burned libraries (such as Louvain), as did the Taliban (in Kabul), and—regardless of the official explanation—U.S. forces incinerated dozens of copies of the Koran. State-funded libraries such as Pasadena’s are under constant threat. As Harvard scholar Matthew Battles writes, “Much of what comes down to us from antiquity…was held in small private libraries tucked away in obscure backwaters in the ancient world, where it was more likely to escape the notice of zealots as well as princes.”

Brewster Kahle may be right to hedge our bets. With his odd obsession for time capsules, he may be the only sane pack rat with the resources necessary to safeguard the written word. Tomorrow’s invaders will probably ignore his warehouse in Richmond as they go about burning our cultural treasures—and if the Library of Congress falls under the torch, Kahle’s shipping containers, sealed in their windswept wasteland, may just survive.

BOOKS OF TOMORROW

How a new breed of publisher cranks out books the public wants to read

Roaming the dark corners of the internet are thousands of odd books with such titles as Unique Vacations, Vol. 2: Sex Tourism and Where to Get Laid in the Philippines, Thailand, Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Everywhere Else and Celebrities Who Fuck Hookers—Allegedly: Charlie Sheen, Gene Simmons, Tommy Lee, George Michael and More. These tomes are composed entirely of Wikipedia articles repackaged as print-on-demand books that sell from $19.75 to $55. They are largely the work of Project Webster, a currently defunct offshoot of BiblioLabs, which specialized in books from “the vast body of public domain (governmental) and open source (creative commons licensed) articles in existence.” Project Webster offers a dystopian vision of publishing’s future. The online description of each work begins with a modest disclaimer that “the content of this book primarily consists of articles available from Wikipedia,” followed by copy such as (from The Celebrity Rumor Mill: Celebrities Who Might Be Lesbians Like Tyra Banks, Kelly Clarkson, Oprah and More) “The world loves lesbians, especially when two beautiful women get together. It makes men go wild with fantasies and other women are just glad that there are two more women out of the neverending quest to find a man.” Such titles claim to offer “the convenience and utility of a real book,” and it’s possible someone would buy one knowing it’s nothing but Wikipedia articles. But Project Webster trades on ignorance, with convoluted titles from an SEO wet dream. Stranger still, these volumes are more expensive than traditional paperbacks, perhaps on the theory that people value books, like wine, according to price. Degenerate publishers have always preyed on unsuspecting readers; the web merely accelerates this. What distinguishes schemes such as Project Webster is that they aren’t electronic; they trade on the value of the book as object. A mystique still surrounds a physical book: It seems more “true” than a website. Project Webster turned this on its head, bestowing that mystique on crap to make a quick buck. BiblioLabs has since suspended Project Webster, but in its wake imitators continue to spring up. Print-on-demand spam won’t be going away anytime soon. In the future, the book as object may continue to develop more, not less, cachet—though not always in positive ways.—Colin Dickey

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read more: entertainment, News, books, issue july 2013

1 comments

  • Yeghia
    Yeghia
    Great project to work on.
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