The allure of the burning library


Nathan Schneider reflects on the virtues of memory in an age of digital books and dying libraries @ The Smart Set.
What concerns me about the literary apocalypse that everybody now expects — the at least partial elimination of paper books in favor of digital alternatives — is not chiefly the books themselves, but the bookshelf. My fear is for the eclectic, personal collections that we bookish people assemble over the course of our lives, as well as for their grander, public step-siblings. I fear for our memory theaters.

There was a time when I thought I could do without much of one. As a student in college and graduate school, moving from room to room virtually every year, the desire to keep my possessions down to what could be stuffed into a Toyota Corolla overwhelmed the reptilian instinct to collect. That in itself became a pleasurable asceticism, and it suited my budget. As so often accompanies renunciation, I came to love the forbidden objects — the books — more and more. I learned to bind and sew my own, to cut the pages, and to print, illustrate, and letterpress them. Exactly because space was so limited, I could spend an entire Sunday afternoon at a certain used bookstore agonizing over several possible purchases, of which I would allow myself only one.

Mainly, during that time, my bookshelf was a rotating amalgam of whatever my heart desired from the library — and these were really good university libraries, with miles of shelves and easy access to interlibrary loan. On a whim, I could flit to the cavernous stacks and pick up an answer to whatever curiosity crossed my mind. Along the way to finding it, I'd end up grabbing a few more books that attracted me. Those ugly buildings — they were always ugly — became more than homes away from home. Walking into one, I'd feel as if entering an annex of my own nervous system.
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