Lives of the Books, Books of Our Lives

Design Observer has an graceful piece by Nancy Levinson on the transition, if that’s the right term, from book as physical thing to book as a digital object. She opens quoting Walter Benjamin waxing rhapsodic about his library.

I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. … I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood — it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation — which these books arouse in a genuine collector.
— Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library (PDF)

(For me, the passage evokes that “used bookstore smell,” and a familiar feeling, for somebody who has lugged books around all his life.)

Levinson goes on to hit most of the familiar notes in this topic, taking off from the lens of an exhibit about architects‘ favorite books, which is also a book itself. Most of her survey is familiar: affordances of digital v. print, paradigms, with Gutenberg, as technological enabler of Republic of Letters release 1, posing questions about what Republic of Letters v. 2 will be?

She did link to a lively, if a tad obvious piece in Slate that makes the uncontroversial (to me at least) point that in some aspects, journalism has never been better. More choice, more context, depth, multiplicity of perspectives, etc. I’ve heard that line a lot, it it’s true; although it leaves unanswered the question about investigative journalism and other labor intensive types–is that increasing or is it becoming a different beast, with individual hackers as latter day Woodward and Bernstein? It is opinion journalism’s golden age, for sure. (This message brought to you by WordPress!)

But looping back to Levinson, she asks the always useful question: what if the thing we are stewing so much about isn’t a big deal after all?

Her closing:

So here’s a thought experiment: What if we just agreed that the limited and unpredictable commercial potential of ambitious work is not actually a problem?

To wit: perhaps it’s okay if book production, or news production for that matter, goes away in some present forms to be replaced by something new, that living through Gutenberg 2.0 means that’s just what happens?

Walter Benjamin at a Paris Library
Walter Benjamin at a Paris Library

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