Checking out of the e-Library
My son, the wife, and I finish our mutual school day around 2:30 in the afternoon. Then, it is clean up time, play time, and run around doing far too much in far too short a span time. I read in the early mornings, with my first cup of coffee, and during my son's breaks, while he runs off to beat up weeds playing "Deadliest Warrior". He is working on an imitation of Cortez at the moment, having already mastered Shaka. This schedule, with the inclusion of adult responsibilities as well as kid-centered time, does not leave much room for the little joys in life, like visiting the public library. I can wrangle the family together for a trip on Saturdays, but that's about it, and there are other things I would like to do on some Saturdays.
The solution to my problem--technology. Pervasive, world-conquering, ubiquitous technology. Last night, after everyone else had gone to bed, I checked out three non-fiction titles from my local library from the comfort of my dining room, using my library card and my laptop. Within five minutes I was choosing which to read first on my Kindle: FDR's Navy years, a biography of Eva Braun, or Sister Queens by Julia Fox. I opted for FDR. Convenience, you have conquered me.
And it is not only convenient. I am far less likely to lose these books in the pile of books-I-have-read-and-therefore-do-not-think-about than I am to lose similar physical copies of the same books. I won't misplace them even if they bore me and I cannot force myself to finish them, or if I engage in a dispute with the author that becomes fantastically hostile. No need to explain yet another late fine for something I really meant to return on time.
Unfortunately, the books available in this format are limited. And the manner by which one accesses the books is strange. My library "owns" one electronic copy, it seems, of most of the books it is able to offer in e-format. If someone else has checked out this one copy, I cannot check it out at the same time. I have to wait. The convenience and power of the e-book is disrupted by the greed and possessing instinct of the book publishing companies. Fortunately, my taste does not run to romance novels or the pulp mysteries of the present. There is, therefore, a lesser probability that I will find myself shut out.
I checked out my e-books. I browsed the catalogue to see if a few books on my To Read list had made it to the library shelves, and, if the library owned them, if/when they were available. I had a few titles sent from the Main Library downtown to my local branch. When they arrive, I will get a phone call from a computer telling me to come pick them up. Then I returned to my current reading, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, before going to bed.
This computer excursion did not make up for the real, physical library. I went there this evening, returning books and picking up twelve new ones. I can't browse on the computer, not really. I can't run my fingers over bookspines, take in titles and cover art as data in my decision making, or follow a whim to the check-out. I have to rely on the accuracy of the computer record to tell me whether the library owns a book and where it is. In my experience, there are books that exist, that one can check-out without difficulty, but which have not, for some reason, made it to the database that the library computer search uses. At least one of the books I came home with tonight was not listed on the library computer search I used at home.
I do not think technology will eliminate books from my life, and replace all of them with a computer screen. I will resist such an eventuality. However, technology eases my ability to access data, to collect it, and to make use of it. Today my son and I were learning about Africa together. We read that more people in New York City have access to the internet than in all of Africa. With an information disparity of that magnitude, with a separation of intellectual culture that pervasive, it becomes ever more difficult for members of the technologically advanced countries and those of more limited technological means to understand one another and communicate effectively. The facts on which their communication relies are increasingly drawn from sources sealed away from one another, so that they do not speak different languages, but they speak of different truths.