Sunday, February 11, 2007

Just browsing -- in book mindspace

Maureen Dowd writes of being assaulted by pink at Borders. Chick lit everywhere! World going to hell in a handbasket!
I was cruising through Borders, looking for a copy of “Nostromo.”

Suddenly I was swimming in pink. I turned frantically from display table to display table, but I couldn’t find a novel without a pink cover. I was accosted by a sisterhood of cartoon women, sexy string beans in minis and stilettos, fashionably dashing about book covers with the requisite urban props — lattes, books, purses, shopping bags, guns and, most critically, a diamond ring.

Was it a Valentine’s Day special?

No, I realized with growing alarm, chick lit was no longer a niche. It had staged a coup of the literature shelves. Hot babes had shimmied into the grizzled old boys’ club, the land of Conrad, Faulkner and Maugham. The store was possessed with the devil spawn of “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Actually, judging by my recent visits to Borders, it probably was a Valentine's Day special. Dowd apparently upgraded a seasonal marketing display to the status of a broader trend. Things generally aren't quite that bad.

But Dowd's focus on how books are displayed did remind me of the importance of browsing in helping us find books we don't even know we are looking for and in helping to keep alive the very idea of a book culture. An online bookstore like Amazon or some ideal print-on-demand (POD) database might have millions of titles in it. But you'll never see them unless you request a specific title or author. Most of those millions of titles, while theoretically expanding your range of choices, are invisible to you -- out of sight, out of mind. You can't read a book if you don't know it exists.

I was reminded of what Teresa at Making Light called "book mindspace" in a post about "the life expectancies of books."
Every book cover is an advertisement—for itself, for other books like itself, for the whole idea of literature; but mostly for itself. If it ceases to be displayed in places where people look at book covers, that’s a different kind of out of print. There’s only so much display space: a sort of collective physical mindspace.

(Incidentally: the loss of wire racks? A significant change in our culture. The chattering classes haven’t noticed it because they all go to bookstores. Books are still selling very well, but we’ve lost a lot of that collective display space that was an ongoing advertisement for the joys of literacy.)

POD technology can provide a copy of a book that you want, but it’s simply not the same thing as that larger and far more complex technology whereby a book finds new readers. The latter involves a sort of collective consciousness that the book exists. Historically we’ve instantiated that consciousness in a lot of ways: reviews, reading lists, library shelves, shop windows, book clubs, wire rack and bookstore displays, etc. New instantiations are evolving on the net.

No one knows all there is to know about the physics and geography of book-mindspace. There’ve always been people who’ve been intensely knowledgeable and familiar with the current physical forms and patterns of book-mindspace. What we’ll make of it electronically will be interesting to see.

I’m confident of one thing: the number of books we can hold suspended in book-mindspace will be smaller than the number of books whose text is stored in POD databases, ready to be printed out.
The future of book mindspace will partly be shaped by how Google Book Search and similar experiments develop. We're seeing the evolution of something completely new in the world of books -- something that Jeffrey Toobin's recent article about Google Book Search in the New Yorker referred to as the quest for a universal library. The ambition to scan all the books that exist today, along with virtually all the books that ever existed, and to make them searchable on the internet, while slowed by legal obstacles today, will eventually be realized. What effect will this have on book mindspace?

Depending on the infrastructure that's built around this capability, it might evolve into a vast expansion of book mindspace commensurate with the size of this virtual "universal library," making it possible for people to come in contact with a much larger range of physical books than they do today.

Or it might evolve in an altogether different direction -- one in which books gradually become absorbed into the nervous system of the internet and over time cease to have a discrete physical existence as books in the form we know them, instead becoming one almost infinite bitstream to search, snip and sample at will -- a different kind of book mindspace altogether.


Nonanon said...

Madison Guy:
I'm intrigued by the idea of "book mindspace" and will definitely have to follow up some of your links. However, as regards Maureen Dowd, all I can do is roll my eyes and chalk it up to Dowd do anything to make a mountain out a molehill. Chick lit is not the end of our civilization, just like action/adventure flicks are not the end of civilization. Truthfully, her latest, "Are Men Necessary?" was the worst kind of chick lit...completely uninteresting, and poorly written to boot.

Teresa said...

Maureen Dowd doesn't naturally generate ideas for her columns as often as her gig obliges her to write them.

That's my guess, at any rate: a common problem with newspaper columnists. If she has more latitude of operation, and her columns are the genuine expression of her intellect and opinions ... well, that's just depressing.