After our son was born, I found myself buying more books — actual physical books not just their kindle equivalents. I bought a used turntable (that I’ve never quite gotten to work like I’d like) and started picking up a few records. Despite the fact that I’d ripped and sold for scrap all my shiny disc media just a few years before, and that I’ve only ever lived in small apartments in big cities, I found myself wanting a physical manifestation of the ideas that are important to me, and fatherhood only heightened this genetic imperative for ideas.
I should say, like a good Gen X-er, I’ve always purchased media almost habitually. The Japanese gifted us the phrase tsundoku — the art of purchasing books one never has the intention of reading — and it speaks to me deeply, even if I have convinced myself I will absolutely read all of Dostoevsky some day.
Growing up, we always books around our house — great long stretches of novels, textbooks, reference guides. These weren’t the piles of books you hear about from the children of academics or writers, but certainly a better than average collection to fill up the built-ins around the house. There was a complete World Book encylcopedia from 1989 that was sold to us by an actual traveling salesman, if memory serves. Dad would often, in an attempt to settle some lively debate around the dinner table, push back, go fetch the appropriate volume, and attempt to definitely answer whatever question was vexing us, often to sighs and eyerolls1.
To me, the crown jewel of my home’s childhood collection was several rows of yellow-spined National Geographics. My folks had been collecting them since around the time I was born, or maybe a few years after, but by the time I was old enough to start exploring, it seemed like there were more than I could ever consume in a lifetime — and they kept coming! Every month! I have this intense memory of a full-color double-truck spread featuring a praying mantis attacking and dismembering a hummingbird in some far-flug jungle. (One of my grandfather’s2 Christmas gifts to me every year was my own subscription to National Geographic Kids, which I also consumed voraciously.)
The idea of physically expressing ideas and knowledge certainly isn’t new in our age of information abundance, nor is the anxiety that comes with minimizing down to bits. The web as a serendipity engine was there from the very earliest days but it’s been co-opted by feeds and algorithms, Wikipedia rabbitholes being the best known and glorious exception. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade having the world’s knowledge a swipe and a tap away, yet something about the physicality of knowledge still draws me in. I’ll happily set myself in a less-than-ergonomic chair in the Rose reading room in lieu of the stark minimalism of steel, polished concrete, and glass that is so often envisioned as our places of work. Especially in my home, I want to create that environment of discovery, to pass something along beyond a streaming music subscription and a kindle full of books.
Alas, because I can’t help solutinize this non-problem, here’s my idea. Let me pick a date — my birthday, say — and include the back catalog to my current subscription. In order to catch up, the old issues will need to arrive once a week or so, maybe two at a time. I don’t much care if they’re reprints or re-issues so much as I want that joy of a new issue showing up regularly. Sure, back issues exist, they’re even collected by enterprising types or on eBay, but just dumping a few hundred old issues on a shelf doesn’t strike me as that much better than a google search (or, worse, a tacky kind of nouveau riche flourish akin to organizing one’s books by the color of the spine3).
World Book or Brittanica could serialize their collection similarly, in neatly bound monthly topics showcasing how our understanding of the world has evolved over the past century. The biggest hurdle here may be legal — how extensive will the disclaimer need to be in order to guard against the inevitable social media call for cancellation when someone discovers humanity’s past views on, well, everything are not going to pass modern muster.
I’m reminded of the waning days of my senior year of high school, in the mid 90’s, when it was still possible to fully matriculate without an email address. Most of my friends weren’t online, even by the dial-up standards of the day, so the ‘net was still something of a novelty. I can’t remember why, but I gave a brief presentation about a project to digitize the oldest known copy of the epic Beowulf. These days, such projects are routine quotidian even, but at the time if felt novel and groundbreaking — in a few minutes of downloading some jpegs, anyone could read this ancient text it its original, indecipherable form! Literally not one of my classmates gave a shit, and honestly I didn’t really give a shit about Beowulf either, but I was enamored with the idea of something an ocean and several millennia away being available at a cool 56.6kbps.
I think that’s what’s always attracted me about the web, the endless infinity of it and the capacity to discover something new all the time. A digitized Beowulf (or 50 year old copy of The New Yorker, for the matter) was and remains compelling for opening up access and creating abundance of knowledge. Of course, that mass of human knowledge swallows us up like a black hole and we’re at the mercy of the opaque algorithms scattered along the event horizon. Maybe there’s some salvation in those back issues.
Because I’m my father’s son, these days I fight the urge to pull out my phone and instantly answer whatever question is making the round at my own dinner table. In part this is an exercise to work my own memory muscles, in part it’s a futile effort to resist the ever present pull of a screen. Inevitably, after trying ot work out the answer on our own, one of us will look up the answer and the conversation kind of dies off. ↩︎
My grandpop, dad’s dad, turns out to have been the genesis of this collecting. His Geographics went back further still! ↩︎
I’ve long maintained an addendum to John Waters’s brilliant aphorism about people who organize their bookshelves by fucking color. ↩︎