Literary obsolescence and the Codex Ipadianus
Today’s AV Club Q&A centers on a subject lovingly calculated to bring up all kinds of nostalgic nerdery: the works of art that we still keep in obsolete formats, whether cassette tapes, reel to reels, Nintendo cartridges, or any other medium consigned to history’s dustbin. Looking at the responses is enough to make me wistful for all the media I’ve lost: the mix tapes, the VHS copies of X-Files episodes (especially the beloved “Jose Chung/Pusher” combo), the Twin Peaks finale taped off its original airing, and, more than anything else, my own adolescent novels and short stories, which were saved on 5 1/4″ floppy discs and now lost forever. Everyone of a certain age, I imagine, has a similar list, which is something that the next generation will probably never understand, once all physical media have become obsolete by definition.
Of course, there’s one form of obsolete media I haven’t mentioned yet, and all of our houses are full of them: books. And my own shelves look particularly obsolete. Probably half of the books I own were picked up at secondhand bookstores, with their inimitable smell of must and mildew, and I can’t look at them now without smiling at so many old friends: The Road to Xanadu, The Campaigns of Napoleon, an incomplete set of The Story of Civilization (missing only Our Oriental Heritage and The Reformation, neither of which I feel especially inclined to track down), The Next Whole Earth Catalog, The Plan of St. Gall in Brief, Philippe Duboy’s Lequeu, bound copies of the Skeptical Inquirer, Patridge’s Slang (stuffed with clippings and a red carrying cord by its previous, unknown owner), and, of course, the Codex Seraphinianus.
These days, it’s especially bittersweet to regard these shelves, because I’ve just done something that would have seemed unthinkable even a few months ago: I’ve given in and ordered an iPad. (It won’t arrive for another three weeks, but Apple, rather cruelly, cheerfully informs me that the cover has already shipped.) I’m planning to use it mostly for web browsing, but there’s no avoiding the fact that by purchasing it, I’ve essentially bought an e-book reader as well. And while I don’t expect to cut down on my bookstore visits anytime soon, on the occasions when I do buy a new book, it seems likely that I’ll be going the digital route. It’s cheaper, more convenient, and, as my wife will tell you, our shelves at home are already overstuffed. It makes sense—but it also makes me sad. Because I love physical books more than almost anything else in the world, and I feel as if I’m betraying them a little.
That said, there’s one place where the iPad is going to be invaluable, which is for reading books that are out of print and not in my local library, but available for free on Google eBooks. And the list is longer than you might think—in fact, it’s close to infinite. Just looking over the digitized books I’ve found recently, I see the works of George Saintsbury, random volumes of James Frazer’s original Golden Bough, Eckermann’s complete Conversations with Goethe, and such oddball classics as Frédéric Masson’s Napoleon at Home. Thanks to Google, a world of treasures in the public domain has been placed at my disposal, limited only by my ingenuity and desire to explore, and I’m excited about diving into it with my Codex Ipadianus as a guide. (Also: Angry Birds.)