I hold in my hands a cheap, ugly edition of every book in existence. At least that’s what it feels like. An ebook reader is like a portal, a word repository. It’s the world’s literature no longer bound by time and space. So when I finally got one, a couple of months ago, I thought it might help me to make my reading more current. This is something I often tell myself I should aspire to, if only to be able to come up with a personal ‘best of the year’ list when I’m invited. The particular secondhand model I bought has even got 3G, meaning I could impulse-buy the latest book releases wherever I happen to be. I’ll have no more excuses. But then as soon as I unwrapped my Kindle I started loading it up with public domain literature, mostly Italian books ranging from old to very old (including this). I expect I shall be working my way through these for quite some time.
I should have known. Not just because I can’t help myself, but also because on the internet – of which the Kindle is an extension – the rare and the obscure are just as available as what is popular and new, if not more so (by virtue of being unencumbered by copyright). And so long as a book is digitally available in one copy, then it might as well come in an infinite number of copies. You’ll never go without.
At the same time, all of these books are flattened in the transition by the technology. Most if not all of their design features are erased, leaving behind only the words. Electronic books have no colour, are all of the same material and their size is measured mathematically, in kilobytes, as opposed to visually, by thickness or size. For these reasons, it’s hard for me to think of a digital library as an actual library, as opposed to a mere catalogue, a list of titles. Yet the difference is significant. A library is an architecture, a way of organising knowledge in space so that it can not only be accessed but also inhabited and understood in specific ways.
I wrote an essay about this some time ago with reference to plans by the library of my university to eliminate or move into long-term storage a large proportion of its books in order to make room for more desks and computers – a plan I opposed. Not only would the physical removal from the library of a book like the collection of Gramsci’s prison letters be a culturally loaded gesture, I argued, but together all of those shelf-loads of books euphemistically marked for ‘deselection’ mapped their subjects in complex and meaningful ways.
Think of the act walking in an aisle of twentieth century political writing. Somebody has selected the books that surround you. For better or worse, it’s a canon, bearing traces of accumulated institutional practice. But together the books also constitute a series of arguments. Their adjacency means something. And by physically being there – as opposed to scrolling through keywords in a database – you can survey the topic, acquire a sense of its breadth. Notice what’s missing. Make discoveries. In other words, browsing the shelves of a university library is – or should be – an education in itself.
And so I asked in that essay if and how and a digital library, being comprised of books without physical dimensions, could ever replicate that architecture. There may be other, better examples of what I’m about to show you, but this is the first one of its kind I have personally come across. A painted library.
These is the inside of the Victoria Square metro station in Bucharest, Romania, its walls covered with pictures of the spines of books and CDs. On each spine there’s a QR code which, if scanned, will initiate download of the book or CD onto your mobile device. The project is sponsored by Vodafone and publisher Humanitas, and only one of the titles is actually free in its entirety. So this is really more of a bookshop than a library, and a temporary one at that. But I’m sure you can see the possibilities.
I for one would be inclined to forgive the many limitations of electronic books – such as the fact they all look like the same cheap edition printed on dull grey paper, at least for now – if digital libraries looked like this, and were this public. If you could roll them up into posters, or print them onto wallpaper. If you could paint them onto city walls, or fold them up and bring them to political gatherings or marches. This is a possible future, not of the book but of books, one that could expand our imagination of cultural spaces.