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Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Two

To Breath Is to Judge: An Attempt to Think Calmly about Nicholson Baker’s Book, Double Fold

“Essentially, then, Baker suggests that every publisher send the Library of Congress a copy of everything it produces, that LC catalog all of it, and never throw it away. Why? Is it true that everything is worth saving? Probably not. A great many books are not worthwhile. They are junk the moment they come off the press. They are junk today, junk tomorrow, junk forever.” 

Those librarians! They’re always ending up on someone’s liste de merde. If the local American Family Association operatives aren’t reaming them out for letting Dick & Jane ogle the nasty Web sites down at the P.L., then Pat Schroeder of the Association of American Publishers is characterizing them as pirates running amuck among pitiful, helpless giant publishers (seeUncle Frank’s March essay). If the AFA and the AAP take a break, that doesn’t mean rest for the wicked: It means that Nicholson Baker has his sharp pen unsheathed, and is going after some librarian hide.

Think of it: My sister-in-law once said of my work, “That must be a restful profession.” Oh, yes. We librarians read French novels and sip Michigan wine, and recite aphorisms of the Enlightenment. We’d sip French wine to go with the novels and the aphorisms, but we can’t afford it. Said sister-in-law will soon find out just how restful is the wonderful world of the library worker: She herself is putting the final touches on her library degree at Indiana University. I fear that this may somehow be my fault, but am afraid to ask.

Nicholson Baker, as by now everyone who reads knows, thinks that the destruction of America’s publishing heritage is the fault of librarians. His extensively researched new book,Double Fold (Random House; 370p. $25.95; ISBN 0-375-50444-3), takes librarians to task for what he considers their misguided efforts to save the village by destroying it. In this case, the village consists of thousands of books and newspapers published after 1870, the date generally used as the point from which publishers largely abandoned high-rag content paper for paper with a much higher wood pulp content.

Back in the day, high-rag paper helped assure a long, happy life for books, provided they did not become the targets of religious or political zealots intent on purifying the available literature by setting fire to it, or by bugs looking for sustenance. The shelf life of good paper can be astonishing.  If you ever get a chance to handle books produced in the first two or three centuries of modern printing, you will find their paper remains wonderfully supple, firm, and resilient–like my abs, if only I could bring myself to do those exercises I see on the infomercials during insomnia bouts.

Commerce being what it is (crass, soulless, grasping, clutching, and heedless of long-term damage wrought by the short-term quest for profit), most publishers eagerly switched to the widely available and cheap high-acid content wood pulp paper in the second half of the 19thcentury. As Baker points out, this development was far from all bad: It enabled publishers to crank out more product at more affordable prices.

Acid Trips

Thanks to its chemical content, this paper often came down with a bad case of acid indigestion that a trainload of TUMS couldn’t quell. Although books from previous centuries endure almost oblivious of the passage of time, a great many post-1870 books turned yellow, and sometimes brittle, in a few decades. The higher the acid content, the quicker these unpleasant changes occurred.

Partly in response to what they saw as the unsettling prospect of vast numbers of books crumbling away to uselessness, librarians in the nation’s major research libraries began looking for ways to preserve the intellectual content of these materials. They began microfilming the books. Sometimes the microfilming entailed taking the books apart to enable a good image capture. Once apart, the books were off to the pulp yard. As anyone who has worked with acid-eaten books can testify, once these babies are in pieces, there is no putting them back together. The preservationists sometimes felt that the only way to save the books was to destroy them–as physical artifacts, if not as works of intellectual content.

Pass the Marshmallows

Major microfilming projects have helped give some assurance to the continued existence of this intellectual content, even though the original packages in which it greeted the public may be doomed–or, alas, sacrificed in the filming. Nicholson Baker is seriously aggrieved about this sacrifice. For Baker, it amounts to something morally akin to burning Joan of Arc at the stake, and toasting marshmallows in the blaze.

His outrage, I acknowledge with regret, appears to possess considerable justification. Throughout Double Fold, Baker refuses to accept at face value any of the arguments put forward by preservationists whose tactics include the destruction of the objects of which they are purportedly the stewards. He argues, persuasively, that doctrinaire thinking about preservation has led to the needless slaughter of newspapers and books that, given modest maintenance and reasonable storage conditions, could survive intact–and usable–for many decades to come. Keep your old volumes in a dry place, with the humidity not too high. Keep them out of the light, keep them properly shelved, and they will last.

My grandfather, a casual scrapbook keeper, routinely cut out articles from local newspapers in the early part of the 20th century. These articles, mounted in dimestore scrapbooks, never received any care except for their storage in a dark closet. The clippings hold up to this day, readily readable. If cheap paper so casually maintained can hold up for close to a century, one must trust that it could persevere far longer in proper institutional settings, where temperature and humidity can be controlled, and where Grandpa won’t inadvertently toss his wet overshoes on top of the pile. Baker’s investigations testify to this point.

Good Old Books

There is something, even for a rational man or woman, transcendently human about holding in one’s hands a good old book that many other men and women have handled and read, in previous decades, in previous centuries. A sensitive soul feels a kinship with these departed readers, and senses a link to their reactions to the book as a physical entity, to the language of the text, to the ideas and images therein.

I like old books. I like them better than new books. Given a choice between going to a second-hand bookstore or a “first run” bookstore, I will usually choose the second-hand store. I like old books because they have soul, and new books do not. Some new books will eventually have soul, but none have it upon first publication. Please do not ask me to explain this. I know book soul when I feel it. This knowledge is one of my concessions, as one who likes to think of himself as a fairly rational man, to the irrational.

My first gig in the bookworld was as an apprentice in a hand bookbindery that specialized in repair and conservation of old and rare books. I worked in a shop where I learned how to sew books together on cords, how to make hollow-back spines, how to bring dried out leather bindings back to life with careful application of the proper unguents, how to repair damaged paper with Japanese tissue and paste, and any number of other slow, painstaking tasks of the hand binder’s craft. I dwell on this business to help assure readers that my career has not been devoted to wanton abuse of the innocent vehicles of intellectual property.

I have paid some dues to the historical body of the book, and, in fact, left my blood on some of its representatives while learning the needlework. I am pleased to see that Ellen McCrady, my old tutor in the crafts of the book, and presently publisher of the Abbey Newsletter(http://sul2.stanford.edu/byorg/abbey/) on the preservation arts, is one of the experts to whom Baker turns for guidance on technical issues.

Microfilm Gorge

Baker writes, “microfilm is a brain-poaching, gorge-lifting trial to browse.” He is correct. Digital versions of print materials are better, generally, and have advantages in their capacity for online searching, but they, too, have shortcomings–not the least of which is that digital conversion often involves the same sin as microfilming: destruction of the converted object.

Furthermore, the preservation of intellectual content that the microfilmers claim is far less than perfect. Some of Baker’s most disturbing passages concern the loss of value in the filmed versions of turn-of-the-century newspapers that featured elaborate artwork, including excellent color printing. Microfilming savages this work, rendering into murk the labor of long-dead artisans. Baker also observes that the varying content of different daily editions of a given newspaper is lost through the slash-and-film school of “preservation.”

The title of Double Fold describes what has become a standard test in the library business to determine the vitality of a book’s paper: grasp a corner of a page, and fold it back and forth. The sooner it breaks, the worse the paper, and the more likely a candidate is the book for microfilming, or digitization.

Baker does not condemn microfilming and digitization out of hand: He asks, simply, that these activities, which are crucial to wider dissemination of the materials ordinarily owned only by research libraries, not result in the physical destruction of those materials. As Ellen McCrady often said when I struggled with a new binding or preservation technique, “First, do no harm.”

That may not be a bad dictum to follow. If more librarians in the preservation game had followed it over the past half century, librarians in general would not today be getting touchy, defensive, and embarrassed over Baker’s screed. They could read their French novels and sip their Michigan wine with cleaner consciences.

Junk Today…

All that said, there remains something about Baker’s preoccupation with preserving every blessed thing that doesn’t rest easy on the mind. In one of his closing recommendations, he urges that the Library of Congress “lease or build a large building near Washington, and in it they should put, in call-number order, everything that they are sent by publishers and can’t or don’t want to hold on site.”

Essentially, then, Baker suggests that every publisher send the Library of Congress a copy of everything it produces, that LC catalog all of it, and never throw it away. Why? Is it true that everything is worth saving? Probably not. A great many books are not worthwhile. They are junk the moment they come off the press. They are junk today, junk tomorrow, junk forever.

Consider the Nancy Drew mysteries, or the Bobbsey Twin adventures, or the Hardy Boys, or (my personal favorite as a child) the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series. Even now, a substantial bookcase at my house is chiefly occupied with supporting a large quantity of these books.

What good are they? Rearrange their words, give them all another name, it doesn’t matter: You’ve read one in the series, you’ve read them all. These books follow a formula so rigid that the author could have written them in his sleep. Or her sleep. And probably did. Sure, let’s save two or three as examples of their times and sensibilities, but why 20 or 30? There is nothing in any of them not in all the others. As works of literature, they are worthless. As windows on their prime times, they are relentlessly repetitious.

Yes, there are collectors out there willing to pay serious money for such books in fine condition. Their willingness rests not on the intrinsic value of the books as art or literature, but on an ersatz value our culture likes to assign to worthless objects because they are hard to find. One sees this phenomenon in operation at any “antique” store.

Do we really want to save forever a copy of every piece of junk published, simply because someone, somewhere, might think it useful?

We Don’t Wanna Go Down in the Basement

My grandfather followed that practice. He saved everything. His basement was and still is a wonder of objects gathered and hoarded over a lifetime. Most of it was just plain damned junk. Literally. The old man brought it home with him from the local junkyard. Twenty years after his death, his family still hasn’t been able to get shut of the bulk of it. The task of culling the worthwhile from the dreck is so overwhelming that no one wants to tackle it.

It may not be a good idea to invest the nation’s resources in creating and maintaining a storage facility that does for published materials what my grandfather’s basement did for the contents of the village junkyard. For that matter, if we save all the books, newspapers, and magazines, what defense could we offer for not saving everything else? Every piece of sheet music, every compact disk, every computer program, every godforsaken bit of published cultural debris that has its moment of fame?

We would, lord help us, have to make sure that we saved Herman’s Hermits’ unutterably moronic “Henry VIII,” and Whitney Houston’s bellowing bombast, “I Will Always Love You.” Not to mention every ill-tempered, posturing rap tune that takes Oedipal offenders to task. Please, no. Make them go away. Let us have some mercy on our descendants, if not on ourselves. Let us at least leave a record (written, sung, whatever) that suggests we were not as crude and tasteless as we know we are.

A Word from ’68

Perhaps the most memorable utterance I ever heard came from a Marxist philosophy professor in whose class I wrestled with the heavyweights of existentialism in the spring of 1968. During a discussion of Camus, someone in the class was griping about people like Camus being “judgmental.” The prof, ordinarily a very humane and gentle sort, turned his pale blue eyes on the student in an uncharacteristic glare, and slowly uttered, in a voice devoid of warmth, the following statement:

“To breathe is to judge.”

This observation filled me with a new light. Its absolute truth, possibly the only absolute truth of our existence, cut to the heart. Yes: To breathe is to judge. Refusal to judge is an abdication of one’s fundamental human responsibility. Saving everything, simply because it exists, is such an abdication.

That is why responsible librarians don’t save everything, and it is why pleas that the Library of Congress, or someone or something, hang onto everything published, everything recorded, just in case, have the ring of fear and neurosis. It is the fear of making choices, the fear of decisions, the fear of letting go, the neurotic need to cling to the past and its detritus.

We have to choose. Saving everything, regardless of its merit, is not a choice, but an obsession.

Uncle Frank is going to get rid of those Nancy Drew books.

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