Friday, February 6, 2009

Gutenberg Elegies in Second Life

Tigers Shop1
Location: Tiger's Bookshop, Rare Books, & Victorian Furniture

I came to a Second Life bookshop in search of materials for an upcoming project, and I ended up thinking about the fate of books in real life and why we use them as decor--both in reality and SL.

Before logging on for the afternoon, I'd begun a curious donation for charity: lots of mostly unread books. I've many anthologies and rhetoric texts that I keep for writing teachers to consider adopting. When new editions arrive, out go the old timers. My donations--a bookcase full--will go to US students in disadvantaged school districts and, overseas, to institutions of higher education. One of my student assistants is toting another huge load of texts from the English Department to the donation site: a giant cardboard box in the Richmond Commons.

It's a better fate that a recycling center or landfill, where too many discarded books end their lives. I also see books all the time in thrift-shops, but lately I have noticed how many people shop for titles not to read, but to display.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discussed how the book-as-decoration has entered the realm of the preposterous. High-end homeowners, the article noted, want a wall of good books they'll never read. One decorator found a library of texts in German, a language spoken by neither of the homeowners who planned to show off the tomes in their "library."

Such a space is less a library than the virtual ones of SL at Information Island, Caledon, and elsewhere: at least one can pick up on-screen copies of public-domain books at such places to actually read. And that, in the end, should be the fate of books: not decor but knowledge.

Sven Birkerts, a noted luddite among academics who wrote the magnificent Gutenberg Elegies several years ago, attacked the Internet for three reasons. It flattens historical perspectives, erodes nuance in language, and diminishes the "private self" in a web of relationships and communication.

All are true, but I took a road different from Birkerts to embrace the technology, from e-mail to Web to virtual worlds. And I still read books, though I read less than I did before.

So perhaps it's not the activity but the object of reading that concerns readers like me and Birkerts. We both are unabashed bibliophiles who prefer the sensual pleasure of reading a well made volume rather than a SL notecard, backlit screen, or even a cheap paperback.

Most of us will just have to get used to reading in new ways, on screens and in-world, in places that honor the memory of what the book was in the 20th century. Yet even as the technology changes, reading continues, that relentless hunt for connection coded into the words a writer chooses to share with us.

Need bookish decor? You can hop over to Tiger's with this teleport link. Nice prices and well made items abound.

Tigers Shop 2

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