May 18th
2008
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The Beauty of Decaying Books

Wandering through a library I’ve never been to before I got struck by the bad shape it is in – too many books that should’ve been replaced decades ago, too many that should’ve been treated by a good bookbinder to keep them from falling apart, but were left alone. In some languages the newest dictionary eighty years old, and all of them left in a fragile state, not usable at all. I couldn’t keep my eyes off them. I found them strangely beautiful, each one decaying in a different way, and showing the signs not just of their lifetime but also of the times and places in which they were made. Differences in book binding, layers of material, other texts used in the binding, structures I usually don’t get to see.

Or the decaying beauty of books?

“Books smell – musty and rich. Knowledge gained from a computer has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it is to last, the getting of knowledge should be tangible. It should be smelly.” GILES in ‘I Robot, You Jane’ (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER)

The materiality of books, making them subject of decay and so clearly showing the decades of neglect, also makes them beautiful. Their use (if still possible) becomes a pleasure beyond the mere reading of the text, and the insights thus possibly gained. A book is with us, perceivable through all our senses, it not only smells but sounds, feels, and looks. It’s layout and design tell us about the book, too; the feel of its paper, rough or smooth. And so it is with the means to store and retrieve books. Books stacked in a bookshelve are a promise of easy access and abundance, and the shelves themselves can have just as many forms as the books. Libraries display a tradition, certain ways of reading, the esteem in which the knowledge of the books is or is not held. Their way of sharing access might just be as outdated as the beautiful card-index I found in that library. All this running around, carrying and touching leaves its traces.

Yet I still get excited when entering a library I’ve never been to before. I don’t get excited when booting my computer. There where times when I did, but now I’m mostly annoyed. But why, when my computer means access to more texts than those stored in even the biggest library I’ve ever been to?

Where’s the pleasure in digital texts?

I can only read those digitized texts, not sense them. Their form is rather uniform. They don’t live with me in this world. They only exist for a tiny fraction of my sensory apparatus, and nothing of this world has an impact on them. They don’t age. The point is – they lack pleasurable aspects beyond the text itself. I like my computer, I feel okay using it, but its screen is no Augenweide, the keyboard doesn’t caress my fingertips. And those two stay the same for every single text I’m reading.

Modern user interfaces, although heavily optimized for ease of use and accessible to many people who wouldn’t be able to read a book in its conventional form, don’t seem to care much about beauty. From the most powerful tools like GOOGLE, WIKIPEDIA, AMAZON, and JSTOR, it’s neither fun nor exciting to use any of them, per se (that is, without the stuff found). Don’t be fooled by all the graphic design talk surrounding the web and the gadgets with which we access it. Compared to other objects they are still ugly. Even something as sleek as the macbook air isn’t actually that good looking. It is just good looking compared to other computers.

But there is no reason why it should stay that way.

A new Cathedral of Knowledge

Back in the days when paper, papyrus and parchment were expensive and books had to be copied by hand, people used memory techniques to keep track of stuff they wanted to remember. They linked them to the memories of real or imaginary places, building sometimes magnificent peg cathedrals all in their minds, places that were fantastic in themselves, filled with strange items (because you remember something better the more curious the association). We don’t have to do that in order to be able to retrieve the information we need. But I want our new tools to be at least as magnificent. There is no reason why our working with and access to information should be dull compared to the Middle Ages. Quite the contrary – I think we can easily outdo them not just in efficiency, but in beauty, too.

I want displays where I can’t count the pixels with my bare eyes, maybe displays that aren’t pixelated at all. I want to feel my through a lively discussion thread, literally. Technology is capable of more than just copying reality – video calls aren’t the end of it. It is not about rebuilding something we already have – it is about making use of all the abstraction and distortion we’re allready used to handle and taking it to a new level. Why? For all the fun that can be had. Fun isn’t just stupid things. Fun can be cerebral, your neurons having a party. I’m waiting for holographic displays we can walk through, building our own information cathedrals, yet not in our mind but projected through our computing devices. Individual places where we can perceive the beauty of our abundance of information, using all our senses to gain knowledge and understanding. This is not ‘cyber space’. This is the future library.

This is not about painting your mobile, or beautyfying your blog. It is about thinking beauty and information together, from the ground up. And there is still a lot to be learned from the non-electronic world.

Further Reading:

Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’
is still the classic text for thinking about what happens to stuff when it becomes mechanically reproducible. ((If you haven’t read it yet, give it a try – ground breaking theoretical texts usually don’t come that short.)
In ‘The Aura of the Digital’
Michael Betancourt tries to extend Benjamin’s approach to analyse what effect the loss-free digital reproduction of information has on its importance, perception, and storage.
The Beauty of Books
The ‘Breaking the Rules’ exhibition at the British Library gives a glimpse of a time when print was aesthetically radical. The non-temporary exhibition of the treasures of the British Library is an opportunity to explore the beauty of books from different times and places. There are also several blogs and flickr pools dedicated to finding, collecting and discussing book design:
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And Bookshelves
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Book Architecture
A poetic architectural pairing of fading cultural goods vs architectural consequences of its storage explores BLDBLOG. The latter refers at the end to Anthony Grafton’s thoughtful piece about the
Future of reading
from a historical (and historian’s) perspective. A dive in the digital sources treasure trove by the same author. The technical future of reading might develop from some e-reading devices as explained in this (German) talk at the 24th Chaos Communication Congress; actually useful is Life Hacker’s guide to preparing one of the free texts from project Gutenberg for, erm, actual reading. social bookmarking services like diigo make the web a bit more usable like a book in extending the possibilities for annotation. But none of these attempts come yet near to the ultimate e-reading phantasy that is Neal Stephenson’s ‘Diamond Age‘.
The future of information display
can be glimpsed in the graphical programming language processing, the data coffee table and Shaun Inman’s experiments with simulations of age in his blog’s designs, while Annalee Newitz explores the combination of plaything and display.
Ben Fry’s works
(among others) gives us hints at how digitization might be useful not just for access to, but even for actually understanding information.
Other
decaying books on flickr, illuminated books, A new look on Aldus Manutius Typography