Preserving the memory theater

Forget what constitutes a book. What will be the new bookshelf?

— 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.

Ever since the habit of writing first took hold of me as a teenager, I knew precisely why I did it, and why I did it so compulsively: to hedge against the terror of having a terrible memory. Though still young enough to expect no sympathy, I constantly feel the burden of this handicap. Confirmation of it, and that writing is its cure, I discover every time I pick up something I wrote years, or even months ago. Reading those things puts me in an uncannystate, like a past-life regression. Meanwhile, unrecorded impressions, sayings, old friends and good books vanish without warning or trace. Some read and write to win eternal life; I would be happy enough just to keep a hold of this one.

One of the books that I used to habitually pick up from my college library, and which, recently, I finally bought used, is Frances Yates’s classic The Art of Memory. First published in 1966, it chronicles lost mnemonic techniques, passed down from the ancient orators to the Renaissance humanists: spaces people would conjure in their minds to help them remember all the precious accoutrements of civilized knowledge.

In the age of inexpensive, printed books, our memory theaters have become both richer and more banal; we have entrusted them to our bookshelves rather than to tricks of mental contortion or cosmic schemata. As I look over my own shelf,I see my life pass before my eyes. The memories grafted onto each volume become stirred and awakened by a glance at the spine, which presents itself to be touched, opened and explored. Without the bookshelf’s landscape to turn to, that manifest remainder from a lifetime of reading, how would one think? What would one write?

Modern life, if we can still call it that, occurs as a sequence of gleeful apocalypses. One world constantly gives way to another. If it doesn’t, consumers-as people now call themselves-get anxious. We’re familiar with the drill: new audio/video formats arrive every decade; a new “generation” of cell phone every couple years; and, on a rolling basis, there’s the expectation that several totally unexpected paradigm shifts are in the works-the Internet, global climate change, a new fundamental particle, and that sort of thing.

The decline of actual, physical book-publishing has been taking longer than it was supposed to. Way back in 1992, Robert Coover announced in the New York Times that printed books were as “dead as God.” His doomsday was premature. But the digital offerings of Amazon and Google, along with their everbetter delivery devices, promise that finally the end may be nigh. Crotchety complaints about screen-reading aside, it should be obvious to anyone who cares about information that in many respects digital text is a superior technology to the printed page. On Google Books, I just searched “the printed page” (without the quotation marks) across “some seven million volumes of books,” instantly returning results in 76,000 of them. And that is not mere statistical flourish; for the several years since I lost my borrowing privileges from research libraries and have had to leave my source texts behind, I’ve come to rely on Google and Amazon searchable previews. The very meaning of the word “book” has become something more powerful, dynamic and accessible than ever before.

Every good reactionary knows well that there arises, in the process of using these wonders, the opportunity for laziness. Days, weeks and years of archival labor are replaced by a keystroke and, with it, much of the discipline, erudition and tenacity that the old ways required. But there’s no time to be nostalgic and grumpy. Living well with technology has always been a matter of beating it and abusing it. No one cared much about the electric guitar until somebody turned it up too loud. Now our job is to figure out how to be cleverer than the search engine; when certain ways of finding information become easy, the knowledge really worth having becomes what those methods don’t turn up, what the crawlers somehow managed to miss. As the Temple of Knowledge comes to look ever more like the Googleplex, public libraries are downsizing their reference desks, presuming that for every query an internet search will suffice.

Libraries absolutely cannot keel over and let Google replace them. They are our collective bookshelves, the memory theater for a community. As Robert Darnton suggested in the Dec. 17, 2009, New York Review of Books, the U.S. government might do well to acquire Google Books outright. France, after legally blocking Google’s plans to scan its books, is undertaking a digitization initiative of its own. This is, after all, a basically political matter; the bookshelf is a political arrangement. It carries our words, ideas, convictions, memories, identity and language-the imaginative substance of any political order. Just as a personal bookshelf becomes the extension of one’s body, a democratic society must ensure that its books are held democratically.

One could phrase the basic demands of a hypothetical bookshelf manifesto like this: for-life, liberatedness, and the pursuit of eclecticism. They’re all related. “For-life” means the right to keep one’s books as long as one lives and, just as importantly, to pass them on to one’s descendants. They must not be take-away-able by the fiat of a far-away corporation. They must be in a medium and format that will be readable in a hundred years and, if we know what’s good for us, in 5,000 years. “Liberatedness” means that the texts are truly ours to do with as we please, short of harming others. We can lend them to enemies and friends. We can mark them up or damage them. We can move them around wherever we like, and wherever the technology allows, freely organizing and categorizing them to all the limits of our private compulsions. Finally, “the pursuit of eclecticism” means that there should be no limit on the breadth of our collections. Plainly, no censorship. These are all things that my shelf of paper and cardboard do quite well and that the most celebrated digitalalternatives, so far, do not.

The Amazon Kindle is a catastrophe: an interface to a proprietary market managed by a profit-motivated outfit that wants to own and monetize your memory theater. On July 17, 2009, in an act so bumblingly ironic that even Amazon called its behavior “stupid, thoughtless and painfully out of line with our principles,” thecompany removed copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 from customers’ Kindles without warning or permission. The editions, it turned out, were illicit. While the company was sure to apologize and pay a pittance in damages to the affected customers after the ensuing outrage, this incident demonstrated the sort of powers Amazon has reserved for itself in the design of this new, presumably paradigm-changing device. Books (as well as the annotations one makes while reading, which Amazon saves on its servers) are encoded in a proprietary file format, depending utterly on the device and its software in order to be read. No Kindle-and no Amazon to sell you one-no book.The law has yet to determine precisely what it means to access an e-book on a device like the Kindle: is it more like a lease, a subscription, or an outright purchase? These are complicated questions, and rightfully so, since they involve the fortunes of publishers and authors as well as of readers. While lawyers quibble and companies duel, the Orwell debacle showed that Amazon’s technical capabilities far exceed what it, constrained by public relations and legal counsel, has so far taken the liberty of doing. But even those constraints could be transitory ones. The Kindle’s license agreement also states that it can be changed without notice at Amazon’s will.

Apple’s iPad, the overgrown smartphone that has been eating up the Kindle’s market-share in the ebook business, isn’t much better. The slicker Apple’s products get, the more overbearingly they seek to control the user experience. Like the iPhone, the iPad is a closed system that goes out of its way to prevent the kinds of misuse that stops the people who use it from being anything more than customers. It will only load software, and its bookstore will only carry books, that survive Apple’s censors. The iPad does offer publishers the option of selling their books in non-proprietary formats, which means that when you want to switch to a different kind of reader, your books can go with you. This is a basic condition of liberatedness that amazingly has been absent from e-readers until recently, and it remains way too far from being business as usual.

Until these companies take seriously the needs and, above all, the rights of readers (the human beings, not the machines), they deserve ruthless suspicion. Just because the Kindle and iPad might seem to work relatively reliably now, and because Google tells itself “don’t be evil,” we shouldn’t keep from entertaining darker, more paranoid, even Orwellian fantasies. Never before has the technology been so good for totalitarian urges, should they arise. Already, the agreements being hammered out between Google and the publishing industry are likely to allow Google to withhold as much as15 percent of its scanned, copyrighted archive from the public. It’s unlikely that anyone will bother (or pay) to scan most of those books again. Whoever controls Google Books already controls the future of public knowledge to a very considerable degree.

Far from its pleasantly chaotic salad days, the internet is now tending toward mass consolidation. Companies are less and less interested in helping us store information ourselves and more and more eager to do it for us. We’re not keeping our email and documents on our computers’ hard drives anymore; Gmail and Google Docs have them on distant servers.Apple wants to follow suit with its subscription-based MobileMe system, pulling more and more of our data into its so-called “cloud.” Facebook has already done so with no less than our friendships.

So far, for all the wonders they offer, the digital alternatives to a bookshelf fail to serve its basic purposes. The space of memory and thinking must not be an essentially controlled, homogenous one. Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad are noxious ruses that must be creatively resisted-not simply because they are electronic but because they propose to commandeer our bookshelves. I will defend the spirit of mine tooth and nail.

In my own ways, I’ve tried to build my own electronic memory theaters. Blogs have been useful, though never, as a rule, exhaustive. I’ve stored thousands of pages of reading notes in text files, searchable and as sure as can be not to become obsolete. With each attempt, I become convinced that the bookshelf of the future is yet to come and that we’re in desperate need of it. Perhaps I am asking for simply the right piece of software. Or, better: a messy, ingenious variety. Even if Google keeps its promise and doesn’t turn evil, and even if the Kindle becomes a noble purveyor of reading material to the people, our best ideas will come from our most inventive memory theaters. The point of all this worrying is to dig a spur in the capacity of human creativity to outsmart the enemies of imagination.

What if, after Google becomes “The Last Library,” a computer virus-or the cataclysmic solar flare that some 2012 enthusiasts like to warn about-finds a way of separating us from our databanks? Or what if my own shelf were lost to fire, forced relocation, or any of the possible calamities of history that might befall it? These thoughts first redouble my zeal for defending our memory theaters against every threat, so surely do they stand as the bulwark against pathos; but that pathos, I must also realize, is partly their invention.

As the business of reading technology continues along its trajectory, whether apocalyptic or utopian or both, perhaps those of us who continue to fancy ourselves concerned readers-however much we give in to the new and shiny-might turn our attention anew to what one might call “inner work.” In the part of ourselves which is not technological, we could rediscover the tautology that what makes knowledge so precious is its precariousness, not the surety of our control over it. We’ll need to cultivate the arts of memory and forgetting alluded to in these lines by William Blake, which came to me in a letter from a friend, a librarian who, for years now, has been slowly dying in a monastery:

He who binds to himself a joy

Doth the winged life destroy.

He who kisses the joy as it flies,

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Even among these wonders now available to us and still to come, all having remains no less a preparation for loss.

Ready? Because that’s what is at stake.

Nathan Schneider is the editor of Killing the Buddha (killingthebuddha. com). This commentary originally appeared in the online journal Open Letters Monthly and is reprinted with permission.

Perspective, Pages 76 on 01/02/2011