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March 11, 2001
A Million Books

Playing with Napster has pumped up my zeal as an archivist. Music is important, but it's not that important; I'm thinking more in terms of books and other written material that I tend to collect.

What I have is never enough. I've always wanted to have entire libraries at my disposal, and the limitations imposed on one because of space and weight considerations (the latter in particular -- have you ever tried to move in the middle of a humid American summer with dozens of boxes of books?) have bugged me to no end. That's why I've come to love to Internet despite all its quirks. And I don't care about all the Internet-specific stuff (animations, virtual tours, and so on), I'm not even crazy about hyperlinking -- just give me access to the material I'm looking for, that's all I want.

(Which is why I'm frequently peeved when I find stories on the Web broken into an infinite number of pages because "people don't like to scroll." Goddammit, why do you make me click the Next button 11 times to read your text? What if I want to save it, print it, archive it? It's not like the loading time of a single HTML document changes noticeably when the text goes from 2 pages to 22 pages....)

There's a library that waits for me somewhere that's pretty far from here. I know that when my parents buy books these days they're not just thinking of themselves; they're not moving away from that place, and those books, those miles and miles of tiny letters packed inside between covers, will be moved some day, to reach me, somehow. Whenever I go and stay there for a while I look at them wistfully, unable to take anything with me. (Well, I could, but which one?) I read a few, and I look through others. I think of them when I'm here, when I want to look something up or just read for pleasure. I worry (as I do about my parents) that the books could go up in flames in a fire, or get buried in yet another earthquake.

Or -- not that it's very likely, but -- that there could be another coup someday and they might have to burn more books.

I think of my mother, sending me whatever book I want, collecting all those newpapers, journals, just so I can keep in touch with what's going on, where trends are going with the topics I'm interested in. Walking to the post office every week, waiting in line, having the package inspected by the mail guys, and so forth. This is parenting, like when I was sick and my mother would brew an endless stream of linden tea to with the foul meds. And my father, when I was little, showed me one day how you warm a person who's shivering. (I was cold, and I was shivering. He put his mouth against my back, cupped his hands around it, and blew. It was just like a heating pad.) Those are the things that I think of when he or my mother buys books, one by one. It's like building a shelter for me; I can go in and (this would sound better if so many songs hadn't turned it into a predictable image by now) I can be warm again, and safe, and sane too. Books -- good books, that is -- they just make more sense sometimes, compared to everything else around...

I once had this vision where every single book (and others) could be turned into microfiche. It's obsolete technology, I know, but those who work in international development know what I'm talking about when I say "appropriate technology." A microfiche reader is cheap (compared to a computer and a CD-ROM reader); copies could be easily made and distributed, libraries could be created for people to have easy access to their heritage via microfiche -- not to mention a trove of information and culture from everywhere. They could check "books" out via the mail, for example, and go to their library or community center, where there'd be a reader, to read them. A whole book on a sheet of transparency; and for those like me, a whole library in a single room. And picture this: you could buy a reader for your home with a projector head and you could sit in the dark in your favorite armchair and read a book with its pages projected on the wall, turning a know on a remote to "turn pages."

If you've ever sat in a library and looked through the pages of a 100-year-old newspaper you know what this could mean. Specifically in terms of "heritage preservation" diasporas around the world would have access to alternative material; they wouldn't be limited to self-serving propaganda from their home governments, and they would have a better chance of resisting the amazingly crude, homogenizing machinery of American info-entertainment.

In any case, that was the dream before Napster. Now we're looking at a future where text can be electronically delivered. There are Turkish literary journals and others that are already on the Web. The tools with which to fight ignorance and apathy, to break the crust formed around our brains by heavy doses of blinders-on history... they are here, at least in theory. We don't have to sit forever in this rut that's marked by a blunted culture and all-around inability to think rationally about matters. There are, of course, monumental challenges. There has to be a good reason, after all, why a majority always clings to beliefs and stances long after things have become clear for most members of the minority; so whatever has kept that dynamic alive will challenge any "new paradigm" or any other empty buzzword you attach to it. Copyright and accuracy issues come with free distribution of text files. And of course, access is always a problem; it's a matter of money and opportunity. Allowing for plenty of exceptions, the people who have the means to reach honest accounts of history and other mind-feeding ingredients (such as literature) in stratified societies are often the ones who won't be helped by all that.

But I can be helped, and I want my library now...

A futile attempt to organize the library
Visiting my parents in 1992, I'm engaged in a futile attempt to absorb some of the books and organize the shelves. My mother took the photograph; a little table lamp provides the only light source for the photo, as well as my impulsive reading.

Building number 12
The number of the building where my parents own a condo.


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