The Depressing Impermanence of Books

April 14, 2009 at 1:31 am 6 comments

I typically find that books about books cheer me considerably with their odd little tales of bibliomania and long-lost but refound texts. Nicholas A. Basbanes is the renowned king of the intellectual book about books, having authored four on the subject starting with 1995’s A Gentle Madness. Basbanes completed his trilogy of non-autobiographical books about books with 2004’s A Splendor of Letters, somewhat misleadingly subtitled “The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World.” I say “misleadingly” because Basbanes spends most of his time in Splendor enumerating the numerous ways in which books have been destroyed and texts lost forever.

At the end of Splendor, the reader is left to assume that Basbanes meant to comment on the permanence of the book as a form, rather than as an individual work of art or an important text, but this is hardly heartening after his litany of human evil, destruction and utter tragedy in the loss of irreplaceable books and texts.

The rather depressing overall cast of the book aside, Basbanes’ style lovely. He is erudite without sounding pretentious and interesting without getting too technical. The entire book is refreshingly broad in its scope, focusing not on one aspect or genre of books, but looking at books and texts as a form that spans centuries, beginning in Egypt and Babylonia and spreading through the e-book craze of the early twenty-first century. And Basbanes is impressively well-versed in all these eras and completely comfortable shifting through time and exploring the forms and ideas found in each changing century.

Nazi destruction of "unpatriotic" books in flames. Courtesy of ALA.

Nazi destruction of "unpatriotic" books in flames. Courtesy of ALA.

But even Basbanes’ eloquence and knowledge cannot prevent Splendor from coming across as a little despairing. Basbanes spends a hefty part of the book discussing the purposeful destruction of books and texts by governments or movements who considered those books subversive, not patriotic or in some way dangerous. This is quite depressing enough (purposefully destroying anything as unique as the published record of someone’s thoughts is crushing no matter how you look at it), but Basbanes also spends a good chunk of the book discussing the ways in which modern society has attempted (or, in some cases, is attempting) to replace the book, including with microfilm, various digital technologies, the e-book (Splendor is pre-Kindle) and microchips.

Any lover of the book as form will find these sections just as disheartening as the purposeful destruction chapters. The result is that the early chapters, wherein Basbanes discusses all the ancient texts that have been lost through no purposeful destruction, but just because of the passing of time and impermanence of a pre-parchment age, become not the most heartening, but simply the least depressing.

Splendor is undeniably an intelligent, impressive work, but the only way you can walk away from it not despairing of the world is by focusing on Basbanes’ unarticulated but prevalent point: books may be remarkably fragile in the individual sense, but they are all but indestructible as a form. Despite the sands of time, despite censoring governments and despite modern technologies, the book is still here, we’re still reading them and by God we’re still even blogging about them. This is a noble point and one that Basbanes could have made more evident in a book filled with loss. Instead, he relegated the point to his subtitle and the reader is left to wonder why someone with his knowledge and eloquence couldn’t have articulated the point somewhat less abstrusely.


Entry filed under: Non-fiction. Tags: .

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  April 14, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    I want to invite Basbanes to my imaginary dinner party, only because I kind of want to bitch with him about the Kindle. Though by the looks of things, he might just end up going on and on about the good features of the Kindle without paying any heed to the point of our discussion :P

    Sounds depressing but interesting!

  • 2. Corey  |  April 14, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    We should have a cyber dinner party wherein we all gripe about the Kindle! Whoever invented that clearly has no appreciation for or understanding of the book. I fear Basbanes would be too kindhearted and open minded to speak any ill of the Kindle and would probably be quite interested to learn more and then proceed to appreciate its pixels and ink-like lettering.

    Incidentally, I kind of adore Basbanes. He has a wee blog all his own ( where he actually replies to the comments himself! Perhaps the world of rare book appreciation is smaller than I think, but he is basically a god in the field and that he should take the time to a) blog and then b) reply to comments himself just awes me.

  • 3. Corey  |  April 14, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Did you already see this when you mentioned the Kindle thing? If not, impressive!

    Basbanes, on the Kindle:
    “I don’t have a Kindle yet, and like yourself I am intrigued by it, but I’ll stick to my “real” books, thank you very much. I spend enough time as it is at a computer terminal, and judge it culpable in the current state of my eyesight. I wrote at some length in my book “A Splendor of Letters” about books of the future. I am a great user of electronics–hey, I’m writing this blog, who ever would have thought I’d get involved in anything like that?–but I don’t see why enthusiasm for one medium necessarily means you get rid of the other. Books as we know them have a lot of life left, but the functionality will change. Novels? Poetry? Creative works of the imagination? They will continue to thrive, in my view, between hard covers.”

  • 4. KT  |  April 15, 2009 at 8:00 am

    I hadn’t! Aw, but look at him rambling away open-mindedly :)

  • 5. Corey  |  April 15, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    I know! Hugs for Mr. Basbanes! I also really like the phrase “creative works of the imagination.” Thumbs up.

  • […] has been discussed at length, and actually Corey has reviewed one of the books that discusses it here. While in theory, a computer file could potentially last longer than a paper-and-paste book that […]


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