Monday, May 31, 2010

The Fate Of Books Is In Our Hands

'What is the use of a book...without pictures or conversations?' asked Alice.

(Illustration by Max Ernst).

Lately I’ve been considering the future fate of books.  What will become of the book form?  Will current and future generations feel less and less connection to that method of information gathering and entertainment, and discard it altogether?

For April Fools Day, the local Newport Public Library did a spoof on their website, saying that they were planning to phase out the books in their collections (Books are so 20th century”), replacing them with a long row of downloading stations where you could borrow books electronically for your Kindle and similar devices (as you can now).  The clincher was that they were planning to rent a large shredder truck to dispose of all the hard copy books they no longer would need.  At first I panicked and didn’t realize that it was an April Fool’s joke.  That scenario could happen sooner than we think.  Yet in my heart I know that I will not be able to give up books made of paper. 
Books, for me, have always held the expectant mystery of worlds unexplored, or have made cozy nooks of virtual experience that wrap their comforting warmth around me, exciting realms of adventure and possiblity--all I have to do is turn the page.
(Photo found here).
I have a dim memory of my first library, an old weathered log structure that sat on the corner of 1st and Cowles Streets in Fairbanks, Alaska.  I liked roaming through the stacks, what seemed a maze of passageways at the time, when really the whole library wasn’t very big.  I think I was about four or five years old at the time.   There was a small children’s room, with low shelves and little chairs.  My love of books began there and at home, in the stories that were read to me before I could read myself.  I feel forturnate that my parents are avid readers, and encouraged reading in us kids, too.
I read as a youngster, but for some reason I don’t clearly remember what I read throughout my school years.  It was after I moved to Portland when I was twenty that I discovered “Literature,” through the help of a older woman friend.  The world was my oyster during that time.  It was a time of freedom and adventure and discovery.  My friend enjoyed creating “atmospheres,” like when we read Virginia Woolf’s The Waves to each other on a summer picnic wearing straw hats and flowing skirts.  She introduced me to many other English and American authors. History. Classics. The Arts.  I also learned about classical, jazz and world music then, and so many other bits of “Culture” with a capital “C.”  Cafes and coffee houses provided another atmosphere for reading and discussing what we read.  I soaked it all up like a sponge.
One of my greatest pleasures still is to sit down with a cup of tea or coffee and a book. To open the cover filled with anticipation and let the book tell its story, in words and/or pictures.  The tactile pleasure of the feel of the paper in my fingers, its dry dusty smell (or faint whiff of mold here in the Northwest), the crinkly sound of the pages turning, the pleasing shape of even the most basic book structure--whether it is new and creaks as the spine is opened for the first time, or torn, stained and dog-earred from many years of use--the weight and size of the book in one’s hand.  The joy of making new discoveries with each page turned. 

("Evolution" © by Jackie Niemi, 2004).

Late in my twenties, I learned how to make books, and how to make paper out of many different plant fibers (papyrus, tule, amate, abaca, daphne, mulberry).  This deepened my bond with books, and opened up endless variations of shape, color, texture, form, content, meaning.  Now I consider myself to be a “book artist,” in addition to the other kinds of artwork I create.  Book artists take the book form and alter it somehow, exaggerating or enhancing one or more of its elements, often turning the book into a piece of sculpture, more than just a container for words. 
So what will be the fate of books?  Will books disappear completely?  Perhaps a future function of libraries will be to serve as a museum to show how people read in times gone by.  A relic of ancient society, like cuneiform clay cylinders or the Dead Sea Scrolls?  Will books be taken apart and used to create some other form, just another art supply?  Will they be “melted down,” compressed, recycled for the use of their basic elements (for instance, finely shredded and made into house insulation, or paper bricks for construction)?  Huge book junkyards will sell scrap books by the ton, as there used to be scrap metal yards back when cars were made of steel.  
Time will tell how the act of reading will evolve.  Still, no matter what their future fate will be, I will always love books. 
Posted by jackie.

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