Being-with Books

Among the responses to my two-part discussion of destructive book scanning were several that could be summarized as “But, but, Nooo!!!”

I am not without sympathies in this area. When I first began scanning I used a flatbed scanner so that the books remained bound despite the speed and labor intensiveness of the process. It was not until I realized that at the flatbed rate it would take me until retirement to digitize my library that I could be dragged kicking and screaming into the destructive method. So what is it about books that invite such strong and visceral connections?

A book is a physical artifact just like the hard drive. In fact, as this article points out, drives must be cared for and maintained just like books–with the added factor that paper and ink books can’t be rendered unreadable by a failing power supply. One possible reason is a sense of nostalgia. Codex style books have remained the archival repository of choice for at least a millenia and a half. In contrast, digitized text is in it’s infancy. Paper and ink books require no special interface and have the added advantage of looking imposing when placed in shelves behind a desk or en masse in a library. Books are the props of academic and professional life bestowing credibility and respectability. So far my collection of hard drives merely marks me as a computer nerd.

Another reason is the tactile–and even olfactory quality–of printed books. This report in the Journal of Analytical Chemistry identified acetic acid, furfural, and lipid peroxidation products in various proportions depending on the types of paper, binding and inks used in a given volume. This quantification of that “old book smell” suggests the possibility of olfactory/ pleasure associations becoming so impressed on readers that one simply can’t enjoy one stimulus without the other.

Philosophically, one might argue that the human experience of being with books is such that the distinction between signifiers (words on the page) and the things signified (authors, characters, narratives, and ideas) cannot be maintained or does not exist . Thus, to see a copy of Being and Time cut apart and splayed across a table top is an evisceration of Heidegger–although some might not see that as an issue. I would argue that it is this last reason that is the most compelling as it explains why seeing any copy of a favorite work destroyed–not just the copy one has read–causes many people to cringe. The physical text is evocative (symbolic) of the ideas it alludes to, but the physical tome is also the thing symbolized. We consciously know that one less copy of book in no way detracts from the abstract things within, but as humans address themselves more readily to particulars than to abstracts, we can’t help but feel a sense of loss when a particular instanciation of an abstract idea is lost.

So, what does all this mean to the destructive scanner. Are they less sensitive, less committed, less human than the rest of humanity? Perhaps so…but when I pack my library and mister I’ve-still-got-my-soul packs his, I guarantee that I’ll have an easier time getting people to help load the moving van.

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3 comments on “Being-with Books

  1. Robert Minto says:

    Are you taking all the pictures you use? Cuz they’re really good.

  2. Cocoa says:

    I think it has to do with what type of books you are destroying too. People hold emotional ties to exceptional works, like a box of love letters. if you were destroying say, copies of chick lit ala Bridget Jones’ Diary you’d probably get fewer objections.
    I’m really enjoying your blog, by they way 🙂

  3. maphman says:

    Thanks Cocoa! I’m sure that you are right, because books grab people at such a deep level people can’t help but return the favor. However, I am surprised at how difficult it can be for me to see a mistreated volume of nearly any book–although probably not Bridget Jones’ Diary. 😉

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