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The doggedness of books. A tale of serendipity

Arcimboldo, Il bibliofiloA few years ago I got a call from my sister (we are both living in Paris). «Meet me at Place de la Roquette», she panted, «I’ll be there in a minute». I saw her emerge from the subway station with a huge plastic bag in each hand. “Here”, she said, “I got them for you”.

It was books, plenty of books.
It turned out that she had found them in a crate on the sidewalk, offered to passers-by after the “help-yourself-before-the-garbage-man-comes” fashion of big cities, the ephemeral purgatory of things no longer needed. She had spotted a few items I might use: Czech dictionaries, Polish grammars, a few Russian books – the kind of junk I was buying by the dozen, only forty years older. I am more of a collector than a scavenger, but I gratefully accepted the incredible gift, and when I discovered a sheaf of those ancient hair-thin Air Mail envelopes hidden between the pages I knew I had done a good thing.

A few letters from the sixties in a neat Cyrillic cursive were addressed to a Parisian relative with an obviously Jewish surname, allowing me to identify the supposedly dead owner of the pile of books I had just inherited (no sane individual would throw away a Czech dictionary with letters in it!). Soviet books and Soviet memorabilia: putting them back where my sister had found them would have been like slamming one’s door in the face of a Dickensian orphan. «I got it, monsieur Rosenthal, or Goldberg, or whatever you were called», I thought to myself, «I will keep an eye on them for you».

So it was that, by the inscrutable agency of fate, the dusty library of a dead man with a knack for Slavic languages took possession of my equally slavophile shelves, where it is still squatting. It was one of the most serendipitous things that ever happened to me.


Fast forward to February 2012.
In a hilarious column on the French Huffington Post Antoine Compagnon recounts his first, awkward experience with a Kindle. He had chosen for his maiden reading – of all things – the twelfth and last volume of the novel I discussed in my debut contribution to this blog, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, but what he got from Amazon was a poor OCR scan that nobody had bothered to proofread. He complained and immediately got his money back, but before he could transcribe a few mangled sentences for the amusement of his readers, the e-book had vanished from his tablet. With a simple click the people at customer service had deleted it from his hard drive, thousands of miles from France.


I like digital books just as much as the next penniless bibliophile. I have been into project Gutenberg’s primitive ASCII transcripts long before tablets were even remotely thinkable. I have reviewed hundreds of proofs and manuscripts in .pdf for publishers that cared to consult me. Without electronic libraries such as Gallica or the Norwegian NBdigital my work as a scholar of early modern and modern literature would be unfathomably harder. You know that life is good when you can download and read incunabula in your underwear, or carry the complete Zola in your pen-drive.

I feel a boundless gratitude for the obduracy of paper books, their existing in time and space, as things among material things. I like their impervious texture, their obedience to the principle of gravity. Paper books mean business, they are in-your-face, they scowl at you from a neglected shelf with their as yet un-crackled spines. You can knock people cold with a paper book (Pinocchio did), you can forget one for centuries in the corner of a monastery where strangers from another country and age will transcribe and annotate it (Petrarca did); you can throw the books away when you clean up a dead man’s house, but never be sure that a random idiot won’t pick them up from the garbage (“Look! A Polish grammar!”). Some crazy people do this on purpose and “forget” books on park benches.

Unpredictable encounters are the life and soul of a reader’s life.
My intellectual emancipation dates from the afternoon when I recovered a hundred of my father’s paperbacks from a box in the cellar and brought them to my room. At ten I was admittedly too young to read Arthur Miller (to say nothing of Henry), but those books were there, waiting for me to catch up, independently of anybody’s will but theirs and mine. Their mangled and completely haphazard constellation read like a miniature shipwreck of world culture, a sampler of the seventies, an intimation of my father’s taste and political youth. They had continued to exist for decades with the proud stolidity of sphinxes, they were time-bombs lying in wait; some of them were obsolete, some could have used a touching-up, but they were there, occupying space, as a concrete, irreducible testimony of time past. I cringe when I think of bequeathing my son an iPod and a pen-drive!

The inherent stubbornness of paper is the material substratum of chance, and a fundamental ingredient of the intentional web that constitutes literary works as we know them. A printed book is not easy to silence, it cannot be deleted with a click, its copies disperse like a litter of mice, their trajectory cannot be controlled. There is no need to evoke a well-known Ray Bradbury novel that ranks just a little below Hitler on the list of internet forum clichés: when I speak of stubbornness and intentions I refer, among other things, to the investment in future generations that is one of Stendhal’s contributions to the craft of writing. «Cackle all you want, you morons: your grandchildren will revere me!» – how invigorating! Faith in the persistence of the printed word, assumed to last much longer than a human lifespan, afforded authors an additional margin of liberty, freeing a surplus of pent-up creative forces that contingence could not absorb. The inertia of paper did the rest.

Self-publishing and zero-mile e-books may be great opportunities for amateurs and debutants (although I have reasonable doubts), but I am afraid that the aggressive, almost imperialistic rise of the digital market as we have witnessed it over the past two years («Ink on paper? That’s so 2007!») may really turn literature into what old school communication theory always assumed it to be: mere texts in a linear transmission chain of meaning between a Sender and a Receiver. Like a home-delivery of sushi, only with words in place of salmon and rice. Culture doesn’t work that way. The invention of “draught books” may be excellent for entertainment, but it contradicts some of the reasons why books exist and we like them. It kills chance, perseverance, creative survival – it kills serendipity! Digital works in a folder don’t gravitate on each other, they don’t give birth to unlikely constellations of past and present for us to dwell in and make sense of. A folder is nothing like the stall of a bouquiniste or a family library or a boxful of homeless Soviet manuals: it is the mere sum of its parts.

What happened to the doggedness of books?
Digital publishing is all about here and now. It is the ephemeral multiplied by infinite. Except that you don’t stumble on .ePub files and break your leg. You will never find the e-book of a lifetime on a park bench or in your father’s cellar. You won’t pick up the tattered e-shreds of a man’s life and past from a Parisian sidewalk: his heirs will erase his tablet. E-books don’t inch their way into history with the humble perseverance of parchment, they don’t wink at us from a shelf. The e-book as a format opposes no resistance, is no guarantee against power. It can be copied a billion times, but it can be undone with a click, its format may become obsolete, and pen-drives (as thousands of fellow mourners know) are highly impermanent things.

E-book, tabletAdorno famously compared modern music (and modern art in general) to a message in a bottle. The work of art is a mysterious thingamajig, not a piece of “information”. It exists against all odds, it does not fit into the world as it is, but it is there, and it is going to stay that way, floating on until a fortuitous encounter (no Sender-Receiver business to be sure) will unlock its riddle and let its meaning explode. Patience is a fundamental virtue of cultural artefacts. As for our own paper books, none of us may know with certainty what their fata will be, and what kind of social life they will lead after our demise. This is great! The hundreds of dead people whose carefully preserved volumes I have hand-picked from antiquarians all over the planet would marvel at the distance their things have travelled and the use to which I have sometimes put them.

Plato insisted that books, unlike men, keep on repeating the same thing, over and over again. Decades of postmodernism may have somewhat diluted this assumption, but I know I like books that stand their ground. Heavy, clumsy, bulky, smelly, amazingly resilient books!

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