Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at the future of the book.
There is a good deal of discussion and arguing going on regarding the apparently perilous state of the physical object known as the book. Some factions view Google’s attempt to scan the world’s libraries as a boon, and others see it as a rather naked power grab that will have dire consequences for authors and their audiences. Some individuals have embraced the Kindle, some have sworn to never sully their eyes on such a thing, and still others have never heard of it. Some are of the opinion that all print that has ever been committed to paper deserves to be preserved, and others point out that we publish more books now than ever before, and surely some of it is not worth saving. I am of varied opinion on all these things.
However, amidst all this rancor and debate, I feel that there is one type of book that is all too often not taken into account, and that is the book about which very few people care. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I believe that it is precisely because so few people care about these books that they should be kept around.
One of my favorite browsing books of late is a volume titled (with an utter lack of irony) Toys That Don’t Care, by Edward M. Swartz, published in 1971. It is an expose of the children’s toy industry, which, by the way, did indeed produce some horrific things for infants to play with back in the 1960’s. Unintentionally hilarious, it details a range of games and toys that clearly exhibit both changing social mores and standards of safety (such as the toy hypodermic needle with the slogan “Hippy-Sippy says I’ll try anything”, and a board game titled “Pieces of Body”).
The book itself is fairly strident, not terribly well written, out of print and extremely out of date. And I’ve noticed that most of the libraries near me that still have a copy have relegated it to the offsite storage facility. It gave me a good deal of enjoyment when I found it on a library shelf, and I hate to think of books such as this falling through the cracks. They are not bad enough to be produced in enormous quantities, and so survive through sheer force of numbers. And they are not good enough to have a team of supporters crying out for their preservation. But this particular absurd book, and many others just as mid-level, and going to be enjoyed by someone, provided that they can be found on a shelf.
And so, undaunted by any actual knowledge of how the library sciences work, and what influences the decision of whether to send a book offsite of not, I have resolved to spend more time searching through the basement shelves of libraries, seeking out those perhaps unworthy and certainly unloved books that are waiting to be found by someone, and to borrow these books, in the vain hope that by keeping them in the system as ‘books that are borrowed’ I can in some way forestall their inevitable relegation to the dustbin of storage.