Philosophy

Paper Tigers

Page slaves pressed by history's volume

|

Every educated person wants to be known as a "book lover." Hence, to be indifferent to, much less openly disagree with, Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random House, $25.95) is to declare yourself an illiterate, an enemy of history, a cretin of the first order. No wonder Double Fold has met with grateful hosannas proclaiming its author "a hero to book lovers everywhere" (as the San Francisco Chronicle put it in a representative rave review).

Acclaimed novelist Baker (The Mezzanine, Room Temperature) argues that the loss of a book, of a magazine, even of a late-morning edition of a newspaper, constitutes a terrible, irreparable loss to our cultural heritage. Double Fold posits that a vast campaign by the nation's biggest libraries, pushed in large part by CIA and defense industry veterans turned library Strangeloves, put irrational faith in microfilm and miniaturizing technologies. Not satisfied with microfilming, the mad scientists have in most cases destroyed the originals after copying. The result: Libraries have slashed and burned vast tracts of paper books and periodicals, destroying a massive part of America's cultural wealth.

At its best, the book is an effective expos√© of bureaucratic mismanagement. Baker demonstrates that the fragility of paper was exaggerated and that the technophiles ended up spending millions more than they would have by simply building bigger storage facilities for paper products. In the process, priceless gems—a full-color run of a Joseph Pulitzer paper here, some off-the-record Nixon comments there—have been lost to eternity.

At its worst, Double Fold allows its polemical purposes to overshadow the complex relationship between preservation of originals and new, often worse, technologies for storage and display. As poor (and self-destructing) as microfilm is, it provides more people with more access to the past than fastidious preservation of originals could allow. Baker's hectoring tone also precludes pondering the intricate politics of preservation in a world where we can never save everything and top-down organizations decide which parts of our heritage even get a chance at being preserved.

While it's a relief to see Baker getting away from the fussbudget pornography of his recent novels Vox and The Fermata, his genius for passionately detailed, morally complex descriptive writing rarely appears in this jeremiad. When it does, it is used mainly to doggedly support his thesis. Consider this moment, in which Baker describes the discrepancies between the hard-copy and film versions of an 1899 Chicago Tribune.

The early edition of the day's paper, writes Baker, included "a long account of the heroic efforts of Henry Nehf, a druggist and volunteer fireman from Terre Haute, Indiana, whose body had been found in the remains of a burned and collapsed building, his right arm over his head, as if to fend off the ceiling, and his left around the nozzle of a fire hose. When Nehf had disappeared twelve days earlier, he had at first been suspected of starting the fire or otherwise being on a 'debauch'; now, he was a hero. Nehf's watch was stopped at 6:08. 'It is not an unreasonable conjecture that the falling debris which stopped the watch caused his death, as the watch was in a vest pocket over his chest, which was crushed in,' wrote the unflinching reporter. Later that same day, however, for the edition that was later microfilmed, the article was drastically shortened to make room for coverage of a gas explosion in Hartford City, Indiana. A world that keeps only microfilm for January 1, 1899, will be a world that does not know that Henry Nehf, martyr druggist, owned a watch that stopped suddenly at 6:08."

Most of us, no doubt, prefer to remember old Nehf the way we remember Brian Piccolo—not for how he died but for how he lived. Sure, Baker's point is charmingly made. But for all the engaging idiosyncrasy of the passage, is it really worth charging public institutions with the task of preserving every edition of every paper ever published?

Baker seems to think so. And although he himself formed a nonprofit to house a discarded British Library collection, he doesn't believe that private collectors could or should take up the slack in collecting. Why? As he stated in a recent discussion on plastic.com, private collectors' "eccentricity, their discriminatingness" make them unfit for the task. These competing notions—the uneccentric hoarding of eccentric detail—point to something creepy in Baker's worldview. He may not be clinically obsessive-compulsive, but he would have society behave as though it were, fussily refusing to throw anything away.

In the story "Funes the Memorious," Jorge Luis Borges creates a character who is incapable of forgetting even the most minute detail of his life. As a result, he is incapable of thinking, of weighing events or making generalizations. The story is more philosophy than fiction, but it gets to the heart of what some of us find disagreeable in the collector personality—the pointless mania for completeness, the lack of perspective, the stultifying apartments.

Societies bent on embalming their heritage can be even worse, fighting endlessly over the Confederate flag and retrying the Alger Hiss case every few months. Being willing to accept that the past—even the vital, priceless, irreplaceable past—will be largely lost is a sign of mental health. After sharing some of Baker's umbrage at the damage wrought by villain librarians, some readers may end up secretly thanking those same folks for having the courage to burn a few books.