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The Memory Theater, Revisited

Late last year, I published the sketch of an essay here called “Don’t Take Away My Memory Theater.” The feedback that came in the comments from you readers was enough to encourage me to try developing the ideas in it even more. Now, finally, a much-extended version has been published by the good people at Open Letters Monthly: “In Defense of the Memory Theater.” It is, at first glance, my contribution to the Great Speculation among bookish people about what is going to happen to reading when the machines finally take over, if they ever really do. It seems lately that just about every writer is required to submit some opinion on the matter. But I try to make my contribution reach a bit more than usual from matters of fact to those of spirit.

I am in no position to end with prognostication, to predict how all this business will turn out, or to recommend particular policy directives and consumer rules-of-thumb. The companies will have their way, of course; as the filmmaker Chris Marker once put it, I bow to the economic miracle. But I can end with a vision, and it can point to a posture.

Picture a library, in flames, overlooking the city in ruins below—the Library of Alexandria under Caesar’s assault all over again. Books by the thousands audibly crinkle as they incinerate, disappearing for all time, never to be read again and, in a generation or two, never to be remembered. They are all irreplaceable; their loss is exactly incalculable. They are now good only to fuel the fire. As bystanders, we’re consumed by horror. We imagine ourselves as the books, the books as ourselves. Everything is lost with them. Right?

Or, on the other hand, might we instead laugh and cheer? It wouldn’t be the first time at a book-burning. Why not? Isn’t there also comedy—a divine comedy—in what freedom would follow the immolation of civilization’s material memory? We have only ourselves again, ourselves and our God. Perhaps these flames might go by the name of progress.

Thank you so much to all of you who took the time to comment and encourage. Fleshing this piece out, in particular, and putting it before readers means a lot to me.

4 comments on “The Memory Theater, Revisited

  1. Wonderful article (In Defense of the Memory Theater)! Thank you!

    My biggest dream is to own a home that is big enough to house my aprox. 2,000 books on floor-to-ceiling bookshelves! (Actually just owning a home would be nice, I could fit my books into just about any size space when that space is mine and I can hang shelves from ceilings and build them into walls etc) Right now, I rent a small apartment and most of my books are in storage where I don’t have immediate access to them. I can’t wander past my bookshelves and catch those little memories that sweetly drift over me when I make eye-contact with them; can’t see them, touch them, or smell them; can’t delve between their covers to rediscover their mysteries …. and it pains me deeply!

    People who don’t understand, tell me to get rid of them and stop paying those outrageous storage fees. But of course, I just can’t dump all my dearest friends that way! I keep hoping that one day I will have that house I dream of and then my books will live with me forever 🙂

    Anyway …

    I shared your article with my facebook friends, including a group called “Permanence Matters” who are working to spread the word about the importance of the Permanence of the written word … they put it much better than I can: “We are an initiative designed to educate and activate the literary community against the rise in the use of low-quality paper in current books. We are book lovers, readers, and care deeply about the written word.” You might want to check out their page and join in the discussion!

    Thanks again for the great article! Take care.

  2. Found the essay, read it, liked it. Thanks.

    It reminded me of one way that I’ve dealt with the problem of books only “owned” through repeated borrowings, and bookshelves too small to contain all of the work in progress. Get a good camera and photograph the bookshelf, and then use the photograph as the point of reference for when you need to jog your memory about books you should be thinking about. This can also work for piles of books assembled in any book-rich environment (bookstores, libraries, friends homes).

  3. A story that seems especially pertinent:

    While a young student, the great Muslim theologian al-Ghazali was stopped on the road by a band of robbers. They intended to take the notebooks that he’d gathered from his time studying with the masters at Gorgan, in present-day Iran. He pleaded with the chief robber not to take them. They were worth everything to him and nothing to anyone else. The robber finally agreed, but as he did so he made clear his disdain for any knowledge that could be lost so easily. For the next three years, Ghazali devoted himself to committing everything in those notebooks to memory, verbatim.

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