Saturday, November 27, 2010

On Books

Yes, I read volumes on line, they are stored and then read, sometimes printed. But this brief note is a short commentary on the book, the real physical entity. You see I just received from ABEBooks a 2nd Edition of Compton's X-Rays, printed in 1936 and initially purchased and stored in the University Library at Hilo, Hawaii. Looking at its well worn but still sturdy cover I can see that it survived Pearl Harbor, managed to persevere through the humidity and warmth on the islands and was used and reused by most likely thousands. And here some 74 years later it arrived in my hands, another user, who will read through it pages but more so, wonder what travels it had in its long lifetime.

As a writer I have thousands of books but as a collector I have a few dozen that reach this level of interest. So here sits Compton and his words, despite the red stamp of WITHDRAWAL on the inside, it has found a new home, alongside Darwin, Watson, Osler, Schrodinger, Wiener and a few select others whose journeys have brought them to the same shelves.

Somehow one can separate the content from the human artifact, the book, its journey secretly hidden from the current reader. Perhaps the journey may be as exciting as the contents. Who had this book enlightened, what did they do with that insight, how had it changed the world we know. With electronic books we lose the patina of provenance. A pdf file has no history, it is reusable without a history of users. The discolorations of generations of readers marks the book as useful. Unlike literature, scientific and technical books have multiple impacts, the reader learns from the ideas contained therein, and that learning changes the world, for better or worse. My first edition of Watson's genetics from 1964 started a trail leading today to many branches, Osler was a window to medicine practiced by a master, Schrodinger was also the impetus to Watson, and like Watson I read it in the 1950s as a young student, and from there to Watson. Wiener is at times painful but brilliant!

I wonder where it will go after me, but for the time being it has a warm dry home with 10,000 plus others. Welcome Compton!