Nicholas A. Basbanes, A Splendor of Letters:
The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World
Right now, as part of my ongoing effort to broaden my literary experience, I am reading The Iliad in translation. A constant thought, lurking in the corners of my mind as I read it, is just how old the work is. The Iliad and The Odyssey are so old that they supposedly date from an oral tradition, and I can't help but wonder: to what degree is my experience of reading this work the same experience that the Greeks had when they heard its recitation? And how has this work, along with The Odyssey, survived through so many thousands of years since its creation that I can read it now, in 2003, with a movie based partly on it coming out next year? (Troy, starring Brad Pitt). How many incidents were there when a single act could have sent The Iliad into permanent disappearance? And how many other works are there, that might have shaped our society and literature had they not vanished even beyond memory?
I remember something Carl Sagan once wrote, in his book Cosmos, describing the incredible loss our cultural memory sustained when the Library at Alexandria was destroyed and its books burned. Listing some of the Greek authors, only a handful of whose many works have survived from antiquity to our age, Sagan then writes: "It is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare were Coriolanus and A Winter's Tale, but we had heard he had written certain other plays, unknown to us but apparently prized in his time, works entitled Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet."
This is the central theme of the book A Splendor of Letters, by Nicholas A. Basbanes: books, and their contents, as lasting relics of our culture as the years pass by, as all our other constructs are forgotten, but as our books remain behind. Possibly.
The book is the third in a trilogy of books Basbanes has written over the last ten years about the world of books, book lovers, and "book culture." A longtime journalist who has written about books and authors for years, Basbanes brought a great deal of passion for books, a passion he dubs "bibliomania," to the first two volumes of his series: A Gentle Madness (which deals with book collectors, both historic and present, both honorable and criminal) and Patience and Fortitude (which deals with places and people in book culture, such as libraries and librarians, booksellers, and medieval cloisters where scribes worked). Now, in the final book in this trilogy, Basbanes looks at books themselves as permanent objects and essential artifacts of cultural memory.
A Gentle Madness and Patience and Fortitude were both wonderful books full of vitality and redolent of the love of books not just reading, but the books themselves. As a person who has received all manner of ribbing from those close to me that I acquire far too many books, those earlier volumes read almost as "permission slips," as if someone was finally telling me, "You know, it's OK that you love to buy books and that you acquire more than you'll ever reasonably be able to read. You're not alone, and in many ways, people like you are responsible for keeping the fires of literature burning." That tone is present again in A Splendor of Letters; once again I get the feeling that I'm not doing something weird by constantly running well-short of shelf space. The love of books, "bibliomania," is a fine thing.
But there is another tone here, a sense of sadness. Much of the book reads like an elegy to all the books lost throughout the ages, and a solemn reminder of all the books we have now that will soon join them. And that elegiac tone is occasionally leavened with a dose of anger, because in many cases the loss of books is not merely attributable to the endless march of time and all the accidental turns of fate that time carries with it. No, often books are lost because humans have wantonly decided to lose them.
The most egregious examples of this come in Basbanes' fifth chapter, entitled "From the Ashes." He opens his book with a stunning episode from recent history: the Serbian destruction, by artillery, of the National and University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, in which nearly the entire cultural memory of the Bosnians was put to the torch by horribly efficient modern means. And this was not merely a loss of books: a number of people were killed too, including librarians who braved the line of fire in hopes of saving the precious artifacts of their nation. A library might not seem, at first glance, to be a particularly pressing military target, but that is a Western view, in which wars are fought either for defense or for occupation purposes. To an army whose goal is not mere occupation but genocide "ethnic cleansing" the utility of destroying a library becomes clear. It is the first act of rewriting history, and such acts stand in the same nefarious tradition as quashing literacy among the enslaved. Basbanes takes us, in this chapter, on a world tour of places where ethnic or cultural heritages have been destroyed by warring despots, and though the chapter title "From the Ashes" refers to the heroic efforts following the wars and the usual fall of those despots to once again gather materials from libraries and repositories worldwide in the hopes of reestablishing some small part of what was lost, we never forget that these efforts can never come close to replication. Something will endure, we realize, but all the same, we are left to wonder if what remains is even close to what was lost.
Not all of the book is as saddening as that chapter, and I don't want to overstate the case here. The most fascinating chapter is one called "The Ozymandias Factor," an allusion to the Shelley poem about the statue in the desert that exhorts passers-by to look on King Ozymandias's works and despair, but so much time has passed that only this statue of Ozymandias remains. This chapter focuses on the archaeological discovery of ancient books and written materials, some of which are so old that their contents cannot even be known without substantial scholarly effort, many of which defy interpretation or translation to this day. The most famous such example, of course, would be the Rosetta Stone, by which Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were at last decoded. There are other examples, though, and in many of these cases the sheer accidental nature of the materials' preservation is breathtaking, such as an Etruscan book written on linen that somehow found its way to Ancient Egypt, where it was deemed recyclable and then actually cut up into strips for use in the mummification process. Such examples inspire so many questions: how many literary treasures are still out there, buried in forgotten caves or wrapped around corpses or preserved in cities like Pompeii? And, how many of our own books will survive?
In the latter chapters of A Splendor of Letters, Basbanes describes a number of the issues facing librarians and preservationists today. The most obvious problem is all of the books printed over the last two centuries on highly acidic, wood-pulp based paper that are becoming more and more brittle with each passing year. (You can see this problem for yourself, if you happen to own a mass-market paperback novel printed more than twenty years ago. Note how the pages are no longer white, but rather brown, and note how they don't bend with the same suppleness of new paper.) That wonderful smell that any book lover knows, the aroma one takes in when entering any large library, is actually the smell of decaying paper the scent of books passing into memory too early. The irony that books made in medieval monasteries will still be readable when books made in 1900 have disintegrated is a palpable one. Basbanes takes us on a tour of some of the strategies for preservation digitizing, deacidification, and the like but constantly lurking in the background is the recognition that not everything can be saved.
Ultimately, this is the tension to which Basbanes returns time and again: the continual clash between those who believe that everything that can be saved should be saved, and those who believe that everything can't possibly be saved, and so value judgments must be made. Fittingly, the last chapters of the book deal with digital media, technology, electronic publishing, and the similar issues that some believe have finally sounded the death-knell for printing-on-paper and others believe is merely another alternative. Will paper finally go away? Or are those who promise a paperless future somehow ignoring the fact that where paper can last for centuries, the digital media of just a couple of decades ago are already useless? Wisely, Basbanes does not claim to offer any answers beyond "Only time will tell." Not the most hopeful note, but for those of us who do love the feeling of paper and find it nigh inconceivable that paper could ever be replaced by some bit of technology, it's a start.
Basbanes refers to A Splendor of Letters as the concluding volume of a trilogy. I find that a pity, and I hope he finds a way to say more about books and those souls afflicted by his gentle madness.