Don’t Take Away My Memory Theater

Empty bookshelfWhat concerns me about the coming literary apocalypse that everybody now expects—the full or partial elimination of paper books in favor of digital alternatives—is not chiefly the books themselves but the assortments in which they find themselves. Specifically, I am concerned about what’s going to happen to my own library. For public and academic libraries, however vital, I think I’ll leave the fretting to the experts and hope that a deal can be struck between Google’s armada of scanners and well-meaning librarians. My fear is for the eclectic, personal collections that we bookish people assemble over the course of our lives: our memory theaters.

It is time to defend, tooth and nail, the spirit of our precious bookshelves. I think of the work of historian Frances Yates (which now sits on my shelf), who chronicled the the great “memory theaters” of ancient orators and Renaissance humanists—spaces they would conjure in their minds in order to help them memorize all the precious accoutrements of civilized knowledge. In the age of the book, our memory theaters have become externalized; we have entrusted them to our bookshelves. As I look over my own shelf, I see my life pass before my eyes. The memories grafted onto each volume become stirred and awakened, presenting themselves to ready access. Such libraries are particular to their possessors, the manifest remainder from years of thinking. Without the bookshelf’s landscape to turn to, I don’t know how I would think or write.

Believe me, I’ve tried alternatives. I’ve attempted in several ways to digitize my memory theater, through painstaking and searchable notes on my computer, through blogs, and through online outlets like Google Books and Amazon previews. We will have to find new forms. Technologies are changing, rendering my memory theater obsolete, and I can feel it slipping out of my control. So far, the digital alternatives to a bookshelf fail to serve the necessary needs—the freedom and the eclecticism that make possible an authentic intellectual life. As far as I’m concerned, the Amazon Kindle is demonic: an interface to what amounts to a proprietary library managed by a distant and profit-motivated company that wants to own and monetize my theater. It, and products like it, are an utterly noxious ruse that must be staunchly resisted—not simply because they are electronic but because they are owned. The space of thinking must not be an essentially corporate, homogenous one.

There is, I can recognize, a bit of a tragic character to this dependence on my shelf. Socrates, in fact, warned against trading memory for writing and books, the devotees of which “are not wise, but only appear wise.” What would happen, after all, if my library were destroyed in a fire? Or, for that matter, if all our digital memory-banks were wiped away in a cataclysmic solar storm, as the 2012 enthusiasts warn may await us? For all this worrying, I’m actually quite hopeful about the capacity of human creativity to come up with the means to outsmart homogeneity and all other enemies of imagination. In the meantime, let us be mindful of the little miracles that we have in our bookshelves, the theaters whose inevitable changing will—for some, drastically—change us.

Be sure to catch “What’s On Your Shelf,” an elegant slideshow of photos KtB readers sent in of their bookshelves and bizarre-o altars.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.