SHELTER FROM THE STORM
They are everywhere. Two rows deep on the shelves, stacked on top of the those rows, in small piles in corners. In the library annex, known in most homes as the loo, there’s a stack of books on the windowsill. In the living room there are two or three piles of “to read next” books. Even in my backpack there’s the book I read on the bus or the train to and from work each day. Long ago I accepted the fact that my apartment has become an orphanage for books. Especially old homeless books. It’s a bibliophile’s paradise, albeit a crowded one. And I am happy as a clam at high tide to be drowning in a sea of books.
The book is an incredible invention. Along with the wheel, the telescope and coffee, substitute chocolate if you prefer, books are perhaps one of humankind’s greatest achievements. It would be hard to imagine a world without books, although modern technology is trying its best to move the world in that direction. E-book readers, tablets, online digitalized copies, all of these electronic substitutes pale in comparison with the experience of holding, perusing and possessing an actual printed upon paper book. Books are time machines, enabling one to read the thoughts, perceptions and ideas of someone who lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Books transport you to other worlds or immerse you in all the wonders of this one. Books let you magically see inside someone else’s mind and experience their dreams, fantasies and hopes. Books became the natural expansion and refinement of an oral tradition, preserving and passing on knowledge much more effectively. And the book gave the oral tradition a new veneer of creativity. A book in itself can be a work of art. It’s cover, spine, binding and individual leaves all can be designed and embellished to enhance the contents within. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, before mass production streamlined and cheapened the gestalt of printed matter, most books, unless they were cheap editions for mass consumption (not to be seen in a lesser light for they made the dissemination of knowledge available to everyone), were truly treasures of quality and design. Today’s hard bound and paperback books are but a pale shadow of what it once meant to be a book. Loss of quality in human undertakings as time advances seems to be the normal evolution in our undertakings. I need only to think about Roman terra sigilatta or samian wares, that were manufactured some two thousand years ago in Italy, France and the Rhineland. The early designs that originated in Roman Italy were thin walled, deep glossy wine red, exquisitely designed pottery pieces that, as time passed and the industry spread across the Roman Empire, became thicker walled, dull orange coloured, more poorly designed pieces, losing their original beauty, delicacy and style. Books have, unfortunately, taken the same path, starting out as objects of quality and value and developing into cheap imitations of what they once were. In that sense the content hasn’t changed, but the experience certainly has. But that seems intrinsic in our material evolution. The washing machine your parents bought in the 1950’s lasted a lifetime. Today you need a new one every few years. And I won’t even mention the built-in obsolescence of software systems and electronic devices.
Perhaps that is why my apartment has become an orphanage for old books. There are many sins in this world, but few worse than destroying or throwing away an old book. And over the years, as they have crossed my path or I theirs, I have opened my doors to many discarded, neglected, orphaned old books. There are certain standards of qualification the books must go through, mostly centering on my interest in their contents, but these are not strictly held or applied. Naturally most of these books deal with my favourite topics of archaeology, literature, history, music, astronomy, philosophy and art and are not necessarily limited to one language. Most people prefer to utilize the public library for their access to books, one is not burdened by the weight of possession, but those libraries are subject to municipal budget cuts, and censorship by conservative pundits who believe they have a moral (read immoral) right to determine what others should or should not be reading. That problem doesn’t exist in my library. There’s no censorship, no banned in Boston filters. I can enjoy Frank Harris just as easily as Shakespeare. Anaïs Nin just as much as Hildegard of Bingen. And although I greatly enjoy the media of film, a book is a portable world of its own that you can take with you just about anywhere without needing any technological devices to render the experience enjoyable. When, in a worst case scenario at some point in the future, someone pulls the plug on all the power, all the e-book readers, computers and media players will be reduced to worthless pieces of plastic and metal, their digital content rendered useless. I will still have all my books and few boxes of candles and a smug smile on my face. But don’t misunderstand me. Although I haven’t been sitting idly by, mired in the past, and have enthusiastically embraced the new technologies, I see them as fragile. Very fragile. Books are the stuff of endurance, longevity. They last. When I hold an ancient tome in my hands I often wonder where it has spent its time, what shelves has it graced, to whom did it give pleasure and enjoyment. A hundred year old book that has found its way into my orphanage has done its job well. Books survive. Especially when they find shelter from the storm in my Orphanage For Old Books. But please don’t ask me about my Shelter For Wayward and Homeless LPs, CDs and DVDs. That’s a whole other story…
Two rows deep, just a small corner in my Orphanage For Old Books. Photo taken in March 2014.
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