“I can show you a sacred book that might interest a man such as yourself” – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Book of Sand”
Like many people who love to read, I exist in a paradoxical state of having both far too many books and far too few. I probably don’t have many more than the average literature lover of my age, but I live in a smallish apartment, and it often feels hazardously, almost maniacally overcrowded with books. A precarious obelisk of partially read paperbacks rises from my bedside table, coated in a thin film of dust. My shelves are all two rows deep, stuffed with a Tetris-like emphasis on space-optimization, and pretty much every horizontal surface holds some or other type of reading material. I haven’t read nearly all of these books (many of them I haven’t even made a serious attempt to get started on) but that doesn’t stop me from accumulating more at a rate that neither my income nor my living space can reasonably be expected to sustain.
This is, on occasion, a source of mild tension between my wife and me. She’s a reader too, and likes having a lot of books about the place, but she also likes to have space for all those other objects that you need to have around if you want your home to look like a home, and not a drastically mismanaged second-hand bookshop. Every time I come through the door with a couple of new purchases, or carefully rip open a padded envelope from Amazon, I can’t help being aware that I am engaging in a small act of domestic colonization, claiming another few cubic inches in the name of the printed page, in the struggle of Lesensraum against Lebensraum.
The situation has been deteriorating for years now and, up until very recently, wasn’t showing any signs of potential resolution. Then a friend gave me a gift of a Kindle, slyly mentioning that he was doing so, at least in part, as a benevolent intervention into my shelf space situation. I’m not sure I would necessarily have chosen to buy an e-reader myself. I am more or less your typical bibliophile, in that I have always loved books almost as much for their physical properties as for their intellectual ones. I like the way a well-made paperback flops open in the hand, the briskly authoritative slap of its pages as it closes. I enjoy the feel of a hardback, its solidity and self-enclosure, its sober weight, the whispering creak of its stretching spine. I like the way they smell, too: the slightly chemical tang of new books and the soft, woody scent of old ones. (If you’re picturing me crouched in a corner of your local bookstore like some sort of mental case, a Library of America edition of Pale Fire pressed to my face, you can stop right there: it’s an incidental pleasure, not something I pursue with any kind of monomaniacal intensity).
My point is that I, like a lot of other people, enjoy books as objects. Despite the difficulties that can arise from their accumulation, I like that they occupy physical as well as mental space. In fact, I quietly entertained the futile hope that the whole idea of e-books and e-readers would prove to be a transitory fad, that everyone would just somehow forget that books were cumbersome and comparatively expensive to produce and not especially good for the environment and that they could very easily be replaced by small clusters of electronic data that could be beamed across the world in seconds without ever taking up any actual space. I did not want what happened to CDs to happen to books. But then I took this small, smoothly utilitarian rectangle of grey plastic out of its box and fired it up. Within minutes, I was beginning to understand its crazy potential. In no time at all, I had downloaded a small library of free, out-of copyright classics. There is, obviously, something to be said for being able to walk around with the complete works of Tolstoy on your person at all times without fear of collapsed vertebrae or public ridicule. There is also, just as obviously, something to be said for having immediate access to a vast, intangible warehouse of books from which you can choose, on a whim, to purchase anything and begin reading it straight away. It occurred to me that Borges would have been thrilled and horrified in equal measure by the Kindle. In fact, in a weird way, he sort of invented it (in the same way that Leonardo “invented” the helicopter and various other gadgets).
At the beginning of his story “The Book of Sand,” the unnamed bibliophile narrator — like Borges himself, a retired librarian at the Argentine National Library — hears a knock on the door of his apartment. At the door is a Scottish Bible salesman. When the narrator informs him, somewhat superciliously, that he has more than enough Bibles to be getting on with, and in more than enough rare editions, the salesman replies that he is also in possession of a strange volume he bought for a few rupees and a Bible from an illiterate untouchable in Bombay (“people could not so much as step on his shadow,” we are informed, “without being defiled”). He shows the narrator this clothbound octavo volume and, as he examines it, “the unusual heft of it” surprises him. The Bible salesman tells the narrator that the illiterate from whom he bought the volume “told me his book was called the Book of Sand because neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end.” The narrator then tries to find the book’s first page, and quickly realizes that this is impossible, because it is as though the pages “grew from the very book.” He encounters the same problem in trying to find its final page, and stammers his disbelief at the impossible object he holds in his hands:
“It can’t be, yet it is,” the Bible peddler said, his voice little more than a whisper. “The number of pages in this book is literally infinite. No page is the first page; no page is the last.”
The narrator realizes that he has to have the book, and offers the salesman the entirety of his pension along with an extremely rare edition of Wyclif’s black-letter Bible (thus repeating the salesman’s previous symbolic exchange of holy scripture for this impossible text that seems at once to encompass and to blaspheme against the natural, Godly order). The Book of Sand now in his possession, the narrator spends his days and nights in contemplation of its mysteries, gorging himself at its inexhaustible font of texts. Before long, he begins to realize that the book itself is “monstrous,” and that his possession of it — and its possession of him — has made him somehow monstrous too. “I felt it was a nightmare thing,” he tells us, “an obscene thing, and that it defiled and corrupted reality.” He considers burning it, but fears that “the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite, and suffocate the planet in smoke.” He decides that “the best place to hide a leaf is in the forest,” and the story ends with his discarding the Book of Sand on a shelf of damp periodicals in the basement of the library, taking care not to take note of where he’s hidden it so that it is effectively lost to him and, he hopes, the world.
I’m very fond of my Kindle. For the reasons I’ve outlined above, I think it’s an ingenious little gadget. But in my more hysterically Borgesian moments, I also think that there is something obscene about it, something that defiles and corrupts a reality I don’t want to see defiled and corrupted. It’s a tiny thing, really — smaller, in fact, than my paperback Penguin Classics edition of The Book of Sand. And yet the number of pages it contains is, if not quite “literally infinite,” at least potentially infinite. No page is its first page; no page is its last. If I place it on one of my shelves, if I slip it between, say, two creased and dog-eared volumes of Borges’ stories, it sits there unobtrusively, slimmer than any of the books around it. And yet it has the uncanny, shape-shifting potential to encompass all of them, to embody them all both individually and as a whole. Unsettlingly, it makes all those other books appear suddenly unnecessary, superfluous, seeming to haunt them with the imminent prospect of their own redundancy. It’s an elegant coincidence that the microprocessors that facilitate its mysterious magic are made from silicon, which is extracted from the silica contained in sand. The Kindle is therefore, in an oddly literal sense, a book of sand.
What I think gives Borges the jitters about his Book of Sand is the way in which it — like the Aleph in his earlier story “The Aleph” — paradoxically contains an infinity within a finite space. Like so many of the uncanny objects in his work, it exerts a terrible, transformative pressure on reality. And the Kindle exerts its own transformative pressure, albeit in a more banal fashion. I don’t mean to imply that e-readers frighten me, because they don’t. They are no more monstrous or evil than any other example of a new technology replacing an old one (and the book itself is, after all, a piece of technology: a gadget of ink and paper and glue). But their ascendency does make me a little sad, because I know when I use my Kindle that, even though there are important ways in which it can’t even hope to compete with civilization’s greatest invention, there are equally important ways in which it effortlessly surpasses it, and that these are the reasons why the e-reader will end up replacing the bound book.
This was brought home to me recently when I received a copy of Adam Levin’s colossal debut novel The Instructions, which I recklessly agreed to review for a newspaper. The thing is over a thousand pages and is, in its hardback edition, considerably larger and heavier than any other book I currently possess (including a Norton Complete Shakespeare that, until The Instructions arrived, did bestride its narrow shelf like a Colossus, and ruled it with an iron fist). By way of illustrating the physical magnitude of Levin’s novel, let me make the following peculiar admission: during a moment of whimsical distraction one day last week, I discovered that it was possible to insert into the generous space between the book’s spine and its inner binding not one but two standard-sized mouth organs that happened to be lying on my desk as I read it. Whatever obscure advantage might be gained from being able to secrete two wind instruments inside the binding of a book, any object of that size is going to be difficult to carry around (with or without mouth organs). And if you’re reading a 1,030 page novel to a reviewing deadline, you’re faced with a tricky conflict of practicalities: in order to get it read, you want to be able to take it with you if you have to leave the house, but lugging the thing around on a train or a bus is no joke, given that its volume and weight are roughly comparable to that of a hotel minibar.
So I did the obvious thing, and decided to see whether I could download The Instructions from the Kindle Store. When I found that the e-book version wasn’t yet available, I was briefly seized by that most contemporary (and stupid) of irritations: that of being denied a convenience that didn’t even exist until very recently. Granted, Levin’s novel is an extreme example, but it got me thinking about the unassuageable forces that the book as an object, as a cultural artifact, is up against. The history of what we call progress is a catalogue of ways in which the desire for convenience has trumped almost every other concern. As I’ve said already (and perhaps even overstated to a suspicious degree), I love books, and I would rather not live in a world where they might end up as little more than interior décor affectations or, like vinyl records, fetish objects for a small but dedicated coterie of analogue cultists. E-books are not perfect, and the experience of reading them is, I think, still inferior enough to that of reading a real book that, all things being equal, I’d almost always choose the former. But the CD, as any audiophile will gladly tell you, is a far superior format to the MP3 in terms of sound quality and fidelity, and when was the last time you bought a CD? When was the last time anyone you know even bought a CD? Even my dad gets his music from iTunes now. I still have a small bookcase filled with CDs, but I haven’t added to it for years at this stage and, because I don’t even have a CD player anymore, they basically just sit there reminding me of a rapidly receding past in which recorded music used to have a physical presence.
No matter how badly I want to, I can’t quite imagine a possible future in which ink and paper books might somehow avoid the same fate. The insatiable desire for ever more and ever newer forms of convenience that drives our global economy and our technological culture leaves a scattered trail of obsolescence in its wake. As much as I don’t want my bookshelves to become part of this trail of obsolescence, I can already see early warning signs of my own desire for convenience — for instantly getting what I want, for not having to deal with mere objects in all their cumbersome actuality — beginning to outrank my love of the book as a physical thing. I don’t want my identity as a consumer, as a ruthless pursuer of the most user-friendly and cost-effective option, to supersede my identity as a booklover. I don’t look forward to a future in which my Kindle (or whatever device inevitably succeeds it) is the only book on the shelf. But it’s a future I’m fairly convinced is awaiting us, and it’s one that I, as a consumer, am playing my part in advancing us toward. There are moments when I wish I could follow the lead of Borges’ retired librarian and bury my book of sand on some obscure shelf in a library basement and just forget all about it. But then I realize that the thing is just too useful, too crazily convenient a tool to not embrace. And then I tell myself that it’s not possible, anyway, to shelve the advance of technology, and that history is filled with examples of beautiful things being supplanted by more efficient versions of those things. Ultimately, you’re never going to win an argument against convenience, no matter how much you love the anachronistic, heavy, unwieldy, and beautiful thing you want to save.
Image via the author