Infinite Bookshelf


I’m looking at a bookshelf and wondering why it exists.

We love to collect books. They’re a symbol of knowledge and learning. Reading is fun, and to look at a bookshelf is to remind yourself of that feeling of being absorbed by a tome, lovely. We have a sensory relationship with books, their smell, their texture. That kind of thing is an emotional connection to a fondly remembered past shared by many readers, an olfactory mnemonic, functioning to remind us not so much of specific readings but of the positive emotions associated with them.

Loaded as they are with meaning and triggers and symbols, they also function as powerful units of consumption. We like to own them. Really they’re excellent in terms of consumer commodity; we feel that owning them will make us happier and or more satisfied in some way (smarter! more knowledgable! more interesting to others!), we feel like their acquisition advances us in some material way toward some perfect ideal of the intellectual life, and we can never have enough of them, because they are barely fungible. It is impractical to own a copy of every book, so there is always something more we haven’t got, something more to lust after and think that if we only had that one, maybe we’d be happy.

These books are the material object, the embodiment. These are the things we can hold in our hand, put on a shelf, throw at someone.These are the things we cache, that we hoard.

There is another book, very different from the book described above. That book is the content, the information separate from the embodiment. It is the ideal platonic book. It is the class of things of which the embodied book is an instance.

When we desire knowledge, it’s an inherently disembodied thing. We want to get it into our minds, and the way it gets there is more or less immaterial*. Also, we want to talk about it with others, and again its form is mostly not interesting.

More or less generally, it is the case that a mind with more knowledge is more desirable than one with less. The infinite regress of this says that one with everything is best of all. So there’s been a dream probably forever, of accessing all human knowledge, and the extension of that via the golden rule, to the concept of universal access to all human knowledge. Everyone should be able to know anything they desire to know.

Wonderful recent inventions to this end have been digital information encoding, and the internet. Cory Doctorow says “The Internet is the greatest copying machine ever invented, and it’s never going to get any harder to copy stuff.”

But let’s get back to the realm of books. Should we wish to, we now have the ability to trivially provide access to all the books ever written and ever to be written to anyone who can get online, and indeed a lot of them already are available in this way.

(Of course many of the books are not online, and wont be for some time. Unfortunately, we have a system in place which controls what platonic information can be available via the great copying machine, and it jealously guards many of the books. It’s about making money, and it is entirely invested in the vision of the book as embodied instance, not as platonic class. They are not selling the platonic book; they are selling wodges of paper with whatever they can decorate it with to make you want to buy it. I don’t really want to go on about that here, except to declare that if we have to take sides, I’m on the side of universal access to all human knowledge. Given the great copying machine, there is an inherent selfishness in any act of restricting access (which includes requiring payment and certainly includes requiring it to be printed on dead trees). For this act to be moral, the benefit gained must outweigh the penalty paid by the entire mass of humanity due to lack of access. A personal gain would have to be huge indeed in this instance. Or, is it just that the owners believe their works to be of such marginal value that excluding the great mass of humanity is barely a cost at all? But I digress.)

Let’s just imagine that everything worth considering is available electronically in some form, for free. To a large extent in fact this is true now; I find I can get by for the most part with freely available information. I feel certain this is a continuing trend, and that as time progresses it will become more and more practical to live this way.

What does this mean for my bookshelf?

It depends a lot how you feel about books. Are books their platonic class, or their embodied form?

If they are the embodied form, then this free availability of (zero cost digital copies of) the platonic form is beside the point. How can I experience the book properly without the paper, the feel of the cover, the smell of the print? How can I make my notes, put in a bookmark, turn over a corner? What about the little rip on page 83 that reminds me of the day all those years ago when my little brother took the book without asking? What about the experience of a library full of row upon row of books? What about a comfortable study, a warm fire, an overstuffed chair, and a shelf of good books?

These are undeniably things of beauty, but it is largely nostalgia. It relates to past culture, and experiences of early life. Subsequent generations have their own culture and nostalgia, and these things you value might mean no more to them than reminiscences of the ice man on horse and cart, or the sound of enslaved africans singing in the cotton fields.

I remember in the mid 90s, arguing with a friend about the merits of adding simulated analogue hiss to a digital recording. His position was that it makes the sound more natural; I just thought it was a cultural artifact, learned by listeners and by sound engineers in their formative years due to the analogue equipment of the era. I predicted future audiophiles, not yet born perhaps, would crave that “ringing” sound of lower bitrate mp3 encodings. Now, more than 10 years later, I read about a survey that “shows increasing preference for MP3 by youngsters.”

So it will be with books. We pine after physical books, but our kids and their kids, well, who knows? Perhaps an aging early generation Kindle, plastic yellowing, reading surface scuffed, will ignite in them the same sensations of intellectual warmth? Or will their eyes tear up ever so slightly at the sight of the splash screen for Adobe Acrobat Reader?

If on the other hand the platonic form is for you the book, then the future is bright. Google’s unassuming search page becomes the door to the thieves’ treasure, and Aladin need only click “search”. Suddenly, the need to cache is gone! If you can believe that the internet will continue, that the mass of information available will only grow, then there is no need to keep a copy, even a digital one. If you need it, you get it, read it, and if you had to download a copy you can just delete it afterwards, because if you need it again in the future, you’ll just go get it again. I find this to be enormously liberating. A cache, a collection, a hoard, is an anchor. You have to devote time and resources and mental energy to its creation, maintenance, management, protection, and it is always imperfect. To suddenly be freed from the need is something difficult to describe; it’s like the feeling of getting rid of all your possessions and just driving. It is weightlessness.

There is something important in the embodied form point of view, though. Whatever the main screen of Google might be, it is both more and less than a bookshelf. That search screen ignites in us the promise of infinite unexperienced treasures, but it says nothing of those treasures we have already experienced, of what has informed us and made us who we are. It is not personal.

This also applies to you if the platonic form is your (perfect eternal) cup of tea. You might be able to access all the books via the net, but can it tell you what you have already read? What about the books you’ve studied, vs those you’ve skimmed, vs those that have been recommended to you but you’ve never gotten around to looking up?

I think this an important function of a bookshelf; it is a history. Any bookshelf is the representation of the thought process of the person who put the books there. This might be the librarian’s structured set of books in various categories, or it might be the haphazard personal collection of somewhat random books collected over decades.

For the digital realm, I’ve been trying to replace this with a fairly minimal effort, my reading list. It’s only a short list so far, but it’ll grow, and eventually become unwieldy. I guess it can go through the natural stages of organisation, from list to hierarchy to search enabled mountain.

But is this the right way to go? I feel as though something more is required. How do we keep a usable history of our access of information, which integrates well with normal use of the web, which scales? What secondary effects could be realised through collecting and organising this information well?

This idea of intellectual history is important I think. It is important because we forget ourselves. We forget what we have read, or we remember it only partially, or incorrectly, or both of these things. We find that we hold opinions which were arrived at by chains of reasoning, but no trace of the chain remains. So over time, without our history, what we considered a mighty intellectual fortress becomes a curiously ornate shell, elaborate, but thin walled and empty.

In that light, the bookcase looks less impressive to me. It was never really fit for that purpose.

* apologies

Infinite Bookshelf

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