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Reading: An Act of Restoration

From the ancient libraries, book stories, and scholars of Ninevah, Alexandria, China, Mexico and Mexico to the Palatine Library and the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, Matthew Battles in Library: An Unquiet History tells the story of book collections and book collectors throughout history. In telling this story, he also tells a story (or many stories) of books themselves.

Speaking of Widener, where he worked, Battles says that “the library — especially one so vast — is no mere cabinet of curiosities; it’s a world, complete and uncompletable, and it is filled with secrets.” What is more, in such a library he gets the sense “that its millions of volumes may indeed contain the entirety of human experience: that they make not a model for but a model of the universe.”

Battles, of course, addresses books as a body, not so much as individuals. Most readers make similar connections to books on a more particular level, though. The July 13 (of this year) Newsweek is partially devoted to books. In it, David Gates writes a thoughtful and charming essay on re-reading books, and he remarks that a book is “a refuge. It’s a world, with continent after continent, each as densely populated with heroes, villains, and odd-balls as that Dickens print on my wall. They give me a circle of friends and acquaintances far wider, and in some cases far deeper, than I — or anyone — could have in what we’re pleased to call the real world.”

But shifting from our relationships with individual books to our collective relationship with books collectively, Battles addresses “the book” on a larger scale, and with a historical eye. A “library” is different than a “public library,” and even what a “public library” is today has seen much change through history. As someone who loves libraries and has frequented them since able to read, pondering the philosophy behind today’s public libraries — and the roots of that philosophy — is a new and intriguing journey.

Some of Battles’ ideas reflect interestingly on today’s culture of reading and information. Recounting the story of Antonio Panizzi, who became assistant librarian of the British Museum in 1831. His job was cataloging (the library’s first printed catalog — a comprehensive alphabetical listing, as typical in the day — was seven volumes). Editing the catalog to keep up with the huge numbers of books the library was acquiring became ridiculous (the catalog got up to 48 volumes), and Panizzi was put in charge with coming up with a new system. He developed a new method of organization that, Battles says, helped “transform the library catalog from an inventory to an instrument of discovery.”

Battles makes one particularly fascinating comparison: “from the vantage point of the wired world, Panizzi’s catalog looks like the beginnings of the Internet.”

One of the most notable aspects of Panizzi’s new system was a new way of indicating in the catalog where in the physical library the book could be found. This made the workings of the library more apparent to readers, who could then become more independent — rather than relying on librarians to mysteriously produce books from somewhere. This approach met with strong opposition in some quarters; but you can see the relation again to the Internet, that huge source of information in which the reader/seeker can wander more or less alone and have a decent chance of finding what they’re looking for.

At any rate, Battles admits to the challenges facing the libraries and books of the world. “The library in the digital age is in a state of flux, which is indistinguishable from a state of crisis — not only for institutions but for the books they contain, preserve, and propagate, a crisis for the culture of letters whose roots are firmly planted in the library.” The written word, he says, is shifting, “tending more and more to dwell in pixels and bits instead of paper and ink.” Which makes it seem, he says, to disappear.

But that’s how it would’ve seemed to storytellers and book-collectors and writers in many, many points of history where forces of culture and time brought other huge changes. “The very fact that the library has endured these cycles seems to offer hope,” he suggests. “In its custody of books and the words they contain, the library has confronted and tamed technology, the forces of change, and the power of princes time and again.”

The Newsweek books issue includes an interview with six authors. Newsweek asks about e-readers, and the changes happening or impending for books and reading. The responses from these authors were interesting. Susan Orlean suggests we don’t have to fear e-readers; it’s just a shift to a different form. Kurt Andersen says, “Also it will no longer enable people to have books on their shelves as signifiers of how smart they are. There’s no reason to download a book unless you intend to read it.”

In the same interview, Lawrence Block says he doesn’t think the e-book will supplant the printed book — that a music download is a better way to listen to music, but an e-book isn’t really “that much more enjoyable a way to read a book.” He suggests its main purpose is to make reading more convenient for travelers.

At the heart of it is a question of the purpose and meaning of writing. In the Newsweek interview, Robert A. Caro had hopeful words to say about the continuity of this purpose: “No matter what form books take, I think the basic purpose of writing, serious writing, the kind of writing we all do, is going to be the same: to examine the great questions. I don’t think that’s going to change at all.”

But in the end, one of the theories I like best is Arthur Krystal’s, in his article Closing the books: A once devoted reader arrives at the end of the story. His lament on falling out of love with reading ends with the idea of reading as restoration.

As we move remorselessly forward, adapting ourselves to speed, simultaneity, surfaces, and stresses, the reading act will become not only more difficult, but more important as well. The time of reading, the “deep time” that I have written about elsewhere — that is, in essence, absorbed experiential time wherein we are utterly unaware of the clockface or the clicking of digits — will become one of the surest paths back. Not so much to a specific past, but to the more reflective and contained selves we will realize we cannot bear to lose touch with. Reading will thus become an act of restoration, and the time experience of reading — the creation of that absorption — will become our fondest aspiration.

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