Friday, December 24, 2010

The Incarnation and Bookstores

Normally on Christmas Eve I post the first lines from the Gospel of John about the word becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us. The fact is that the one thing about Christianity- the Roman Catholic kind in my case- that makes it different from other great religions is that we believe that God lived as a person and died for all of us. That God understands intimately what it means to be human and that His incarnation sancifies life and the world. The idea of Incarnation or taking the flesh is essential not only to our faith as Christians but it also means something else all people are equal in the eyes of God and should be so in the eyes of people.
The idea of becoming flesh, in fact becoming real is essential as we venture more and more into a virtual world. Everything seems to be digitized and everything is being reduced to code and the next victim of this could be the bookstore.
As the owner of over 5000 books and a collector of the same the idea that I will never again get to spend a Saturday afternoon trolling the front table at Seminary Co-op in Chicago or looking through the drawers of Chapbooks at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee or working through the stacks at Powells in Portland, Oregon is a fate worse than say the destruction of Parma, Italy with its great Hams and Cheeses. It is just a sad thing.
I am not a Luddite. I am writing a blog post right now. I love the internet and my iPod but the idea that my books as friends would not be on shelves, full of memories loved and used as they were meant to be is something that I cannot believe that bibliophiles will allow to happen. Right now I am looking at my shelves.
There is a first edition of Robert Duncan's poetry that I bought with my food money at Murphy Brookfield Books in Iowa City. A 1938 section of the Cantos of Ezra Pound that I bought in New York. In the American Tree by Ron Silliman, the Anthology that made me want to write poetry. The Memoir of Pablo Neruda... Clayton Eshelman's wonderful translations of Vallejo that made me want to be a translator and of course Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain which made me remain an angry but obedient Roman Catholic.
How would I consume all of these on my iPad again and again??
In the end for me Bookstores and Books are like the Incarnation. Books with us. Not something apart or distant but a created thing in my hands that has a history and a future. We can embrace technology but must everything be reduced to code?
Merry Christmas, God With Us, Preserve our Books and let us Continue to Have our Friends on our Shelves.


Steve Halle said...

Hi Ray,
I've been reading the last couple posts, and even though I really enjoy books, I grow weary of the rhetoric of loss. This is not unlike the language that is always bandied about with translation: the idea that the original text is better or more pure.

The experience of the digital offers more than a book ever could already, and I have a feeling the materiality of the digital will grow increasingly satisfying. With digital reading or even reading a book beside the computer, contingencies and unknowns contained therein can be immediately looked up, which makes for a richer reading experience.

This is not a loss but an invaluable and immeasurable gain that less than twenty years ago was barely imaginable.

Even though I love books, I find myself growing more and more frustrated with their conventions: books have to be a certain length, organized in a certain way, are often not indexed, etc. Digitally mediated and born-digital texts have ways to circumvent these frustrations, and human interaction with digital texts is still in its infancy.

I would imagine that you would agree that having a mediocre translation of a great poet writing in a language you do not read or speak would be better than not knowing that poet at all, that something could still be gained by reading that poet, whether it is about translation itself or content from the poetry. I find new media to be the same, an evolution from print culture by which I gain something from interacting with it, even new media that has not filled the potential of what digital forms can do (because digital forms still rely on our idea of how books and print culture operates.

While I don't think it wrong to be nostalgic about books, it ought to be recognized that the practical value of books is diminished by the possibilities of new media. It's not unlike a collector of classic cars. Sure, that '57 Chevy (or whatever) is awesome to behold, but it just doesn't make much sense to take it out on the street anymore because today's cars do everything better except have that "look and feel" of the classic.

Talk soon.


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