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Friday, February 29, 2008

Disposables, or Throwing It All Away

We have in our hands an encyclopedia from 1909 which has an article about flying machines. The encyclopedia has been constantly updated and revised, so within a few decades the bulk of that original material on flying machines has been replaced. And if the encyclopedias themselves have been replaced and destroyed, then that knowledge is lost.

Perhaps a book on flying machines has not been checked out from the local library for over ten years. At the same time the library's patrons are demanding more copies of Tuesdays With Morrie. The library decides to remove the books that have not been checked out in some time, to make room for the books in demand. And perhaps the government won't let the library give these books away without lots of red tape, or a threat to the future budget. The library simply tosses the books in the dumpster. Gone forever is the earliest, detailed, first-hand history of flying machines.

This may seem an extreme example, but it occurs all over the world. John Warnock, the father of Adobe Systems, owns a 1543 edition of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. This is not simply an artifact to him, he has read the work and was amazed by Copernicus.
His argument for the earth's rotating around the sun, considering the tools he had and the observations he made, was absolutely compelling. He did it masterfully. In a modern textbook, you don't get that. You get, "Copernicus suggested that the planets rotate around the sun."
Even if the pure knowledge Copernicus possessed is no longer of use, even if his tools are long outdated, we can still learn something that seems to be diminishing in our modern society: critical thinking. Knowledge only of the end result will prevent a child from following the process of discovery, from replicating the experiments, from learning, not about the world itself, but how to think about the world.

The ancient Egyptians possessed knowledge which is no longer with us. So did the Mayans, and probably any other lost civilization. What could we do with that knowledge? How would that knowledge affect our way of living? Adaptation to change has made man the most successful animal on the planet. If we continue to dispose of knowledge that no longer seems useful, will changes present ever greater challenges? Might we regress and have to start over, as surely as those who succeeded the Egyptians and Mayans did? Fantastical as it may seem to us now, could a Planet of the Apes scenario threaten our future?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sacred Sunday Mornings, or Waking Up With Proust

One of the reasons we so look forward to Sunday is the quiet of the early morning. We are conditioned to wake before dawn, and with no other commitments on this day we can indulge those unsullied hours in reading Proust. Much of our reading time occurs in the evening, in bed before falling asleep. Inevitably we can read but two or three pages before drifting off. In such a short span it is difficult to really appreciate Proust. In those two pages he might have described only one small thing, like meeting an old friend on the street. To get a strong feel for the fullness of his work, one is best to consume much larger chunks at one sitting. Ninety minutes and thirty pages pass as if in an instant, and we are immersed in his world. And then, though we must rise and deal with feeding dogs and cleaning bathrooms and plotting acts of anarchy, we know there exists in life a privileged moment by which we may be exalted, if only we should take note--like sacred Sunday mornings.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

A Literary Event, or the Festival of the Book

There is such a diverse community of literary bloggers and readers of litblogs, we thought we would put to you some questions concerning one of the ideas spawned in the scintillating Chapter One Hundred Four.

Though more book sales are occuring through the internet (and some predict a further doubling within the next five years), established book festivals still draw tens and hundreds of thousands of visitors. These are usually considered high-end affairs, and geared more toward the collector than the consumer. But they involve more than just the purchase of rare and antiquarian books, and this is how they trump the internet.

For all the hype surrounding the internet as a tool which helps bring people together and form a community, by its very nature there is a disconnect and isolation. Book festivals bring book-fanciers together to share a love of all things literary. They allow one to form a network of friends, colleagues, and connections, to bond. Just as there is a profound difference between the experience of reading a book in hand and reading one on the computer screen, so is there a difference between meeting someone through an electronic greeting and actually shaking someone's hand. Readers seem to love this sort of thing, as they turn out in droves to meet their favorite authors face to face, to get to know the person behind the words. Collectors distribute their want lists to hundreds of dealers quickly and easily. And dealers get a better feel for the market and the trends, and put their best book forward. Quite simply, a book festival is an event, like the World Series, or a traveling circus, The Ring cycle, or an art exhibition, something which the internet has yet to replicate.

So to the questions: If you have attended a book festival, what are the top three things you went for, to meet that special author, and perhaps have a book signed; to hunt through a huge selection of books for the elusive quarry; to hear a talk given by a publisher or writer; just to hang around with other book-fanciers; or something completely different? What three things are offered at a book festival that you could do without? The ubiquitous coffee bar, perhaps? And what three things do you wish were offered but aren't?