What have I become?
The evidence of my depravity is in clear view for anyone who cares to look. I stand in my shop that nestles in the backyard of our home. On the floor, beside the overflowing garbage pail, the words of my victims scream at me even as they choke on the fine white dust that rains down from the torture device.
"How We Do Harm." "A Terrible Beauty."
Every spine wails an indictment of my terrible secret.
The instrument used to inflict the carnage looks innocent enough — even though it took several iterations to get it right. A smallish table with a clamping device to hold each victim down and a slot for the screaming blade of the electric saw to slip along as it tears the individuality from each sacrifice until all that remains is a neat pile of pages with little to differentiate them from the others.
Here lies a problem. Not neat. The spines are not sliced, but rather pulled off, leaving tears and gashes in the remaining prey. I find how differently my targets behave under the same knife. Some slice smoothly, cleanly, but most fight every inch, giving up only desperately, each rip and shred defiantly clogging the blade, even in death.
I have joined the ranks of those who for so long I despised. A destroyer of books.
"There must be a better way," I grumble at Lizzy one day when the scanner chokes one several torn pages.
I find one. The order arrives from the USA, and we drive down to the border to pick it up. The customs officer barely glances at us as he waves us through on our way back. Would he be so blasé if he knew what horrible device hides in the trunk?
The new way is better. Much better. I no longer need to go out in the cold to the shop, only to return with shredded piles, my body covered in wood and kaolin dust, a sweaty trace around my mouth and nose where the respirator protected my sensitive air passages from the remains of the slaughtered.
The new guillotine sits confidently in the basement. It slices any book quickly and efficiently, removing the spine with no shredding. No more jams in the scanner. No more re-assembling the book when it arrives on the screen of my laptop. The shelves grow incrementally emptier, and once a week I fill the garbage container with the evidence neatly covered in a black plastic bag. No one will see. But I look guiltily around when I take the container to the sidewalk, even when it is four in the morning, as is often the case. I am a night owl, after all.
"I Murdered My Library", Linda Grant writes in her short booklet. Like me, she has a good reason for her annihilation of a whole tribe of books. Hers is a move into a smaller dwelling. Mine is that too. For several years now, Lizzy and I have been planning how to move onto a sailing yacht. It will soon be time to turn plans into actions.
"It is impossible to go sailing without our books," Lizzy says to me one day.
From the many bookshelves in our home, the clamour begins. "Take me!" As I touch the spine, I hear another voice. "No, me!" In short order, a chorus is pleading from the shelves. I sit down in despair and cover my head.
How can I become some modern-day Noah? There are so many topics, but also many perspectives on our shelves. Going by two's would never work.
"We can't," I say to Lizzy several days later.
"Leave any behind." I speak quickly when I see the frown on her face. "All our books. We'll take them all."
“All our books. We’ll take them all.”
What is it that I find appealing about books? Like so many nay-sayers about the move to digital, the loss of the tactile and spatial sense of reading at first makes me recoil in horror at only the thought.
I hate ebooks for anything but the most casual reading. There is no consistency. When I go back, a text that appeared at the top of a page is now suddenly found in the middle. It is difficult, if not impossible, to scan a book. My marks and comments are locked into a proprietary basement of a company that cares little for my passions in reading.
I have to pay full price for the privilege to have a library book sit on my shelf. Not my book. Just my privilege. And this privilege is determined by the fiat of an industry hell-bent on sucking every last penny out of me. So much so that they don't give a damn about why I am reading the book, as long as they can lock me into the silo with ever rising walls that engulf my wallet. Their goal is money. Mine is so much more than that.
“this privilege is determined by the fiat of an industry hell-bent on sucking every last penny out of me”
Over time, I work out a strategy.
If I scan all my physical books to PDF format, the layout, as meticulously performed by the book designer is preserved. Further, I find applications that allow me to read, skim or delve books in PDF format almost as easily as a physical book. I find a way to convert my ebooks to PDF as well.
My self-awareness of my reasons for preferring a book grows as I explore my options.
If I am honest, there are reasons to prefer a digital version, besides the sense of loss I cannot shake off.
A program allows me to read and recognize the text in my PDF tomes, so I can now search not only in a book, but also across my whole library. Or just a portion of it. It's called Optical Character Recognition, or OCR. It is not perfectly accurate, but it will do.
The application I use to catalogue my library makes suggestions, points out links to other articles and books I have collected, but associations I have not seen.
I can insert comments, links, hand-written notes, images, even new pages into my book. I once again have something that I can call my book. Even more important, I can export all my additions to a book I have decided to devour, not merely read or skim. They become useful documents in their own right. And I control where they go and what format I store them in.
Storage has become essentially free without us noticing. Just a few photos I store on my phone are equivalent to the space taken up by a PDF book.
“Storage has become essentially free without us noticing.”
I enjoy the mayhem now. I want to do more, more, until the waiting masses are gone, all neatly decimated, no — centimated, millimated, into the gaping digital maw of my laptop. Even Lizzy joins me, scanning her books. I notice we both most often start with our favourites. What would King Solomon say?
After a big night of slaughter, I awake the next morning, and quickly check if the OCR has completed, and the automated upload to the cloud has occurred. Even digital slaves need to be driven.
Then I pause. My guilt sticks to me like a piece of gum sticks to my shoe on a hot day. Perhaps there is a judgment waiting, a Hague-For-Books with my name on its wanted list. Will they extradite me, a grizzled and shrivelled little shadow of my former self, perhaps from some tropical island? Will I be allowed my iPad behind bars?
I lie in bed reading. On my tablet. I cannot sleep. My victims are all here with me. A miracle has taken place. So recently dead, their limp bodies discarded into the dumpster truck, they live again. I flip in wonder through all the titles, a good many forgotten until now. I have never bought books only to read them. My strategy is to have them if I want to read them later. My shelves are filled with books skimmed, some read and re-read, still others taken only note of, a shore against future rainy days. I made a promise to myself never to feel bad for this many years ago.
There are so many wonders here.
I flip across several titles. My signature is under one in blue ballpoint, the date scribbled below it. 1983. I flip through the pages, marginalia reminding me of the weather, how I lay in my hotel bed, nursing a bad cold as it rained misery outside. But I had a book, that most incredible window into another world, built with such passion and care, and yet obtained for a pittance.
But this book feels different. When I drop it to my nose and sniff, I glance sheepishly at Lizzy where she lies beside me. She hasn't noticed. She is reading also. On her iPad. There is no familiar smell from the glowing screen covering my face. No sense of heft, of thickness either, when I lift it. But my nose leaves a greasy smudge on the glass covering the words. My mother used to say she never knew anyone with an oilier skin.
"qv Glass Bead Game p350" my scribble reads in one margin.
There is magic, too. With a few clicks, I find The Glass Bead Game where it is filed away under Hesse, Herman. I am reminded of a few of Hesse's other works I have that are neatly filed away in their own directories. Demian. Autobiographical Writings. Steppenwolf. Siddhartha.
The title has downloaded from my digital library. My finger slides along the bottom of the screen and whizzes me along until I find page 350.
"Now, reading the paragraph again, he meditated on it once more, and while doing so he became aware of how utterly different a person he was now from the rather anxious young tutor he had then been."
I copy the text and paste it into an app I drag from the side of the screen. Another click, and it is sent automatically to a specific folder on my laptop where I will find it later, neatly tagged with information that will make it useful for future thoughts and projects.
It is hard to remember with understanding that things were not always like this.
Before the era of tablets and data on phones — what, not even ten years ago? — I would have to get out of bed and find the book. I probably would not have bothered. If I did, and I wanted to copy the text like tonight, I would have to find my notebook, copy the text into it, and reference it so I could find it again. Not something done very easily when the floor is cold and my toes are warm under the covers.
Part of me says that I was more discriminating, more likely to incorporate what I found meaningful into my working memory. Another part nods, but is thinking that I might not have written anything down. How much have I lost? How much have I gained? Now I collect more, correlate more, think about these things with a better bird's eye view. I am better informed, and my palate is richer.
I return to the book I was reading earlier. I make annotations, using my finger to write. I find myself excited by something the author says, and insert a page where I type in several paragraphs of thoughts. I copy a link to that page, and it also is sent along to my laptop for later. Later, I will add that link to another document, and in future, this book will be automatically opened for me when I click on it.
Lizzy turns her iPad off and turns toward me. She snuggles in, radiating warmth, love and comfort.
I plug my iPad in and put it to rest on the side table. The room is dark.
Lizzy feels my face with knowing finger tips. "What are you smiling about?"
"I am not death."
"Metamorphosis only seems like death."
She exhales heat against my neck. "You think too much, you know."
"Perhaps. But this is much better."
"Better?" Her words slur, heavy with fatigue.
"I saved our books. There is no Hague-For-Books."
But Lizzy is asleep. And soon after, so am I. There is much scanning that remains to be done.