Dust is correctly removed from books neither with a cloth, nor a brush, nor a vacuum cleaner, nor even a sharp puff of breath. All these techniques are liable to drive the dust particles further in among the pages. The correct manner of removing dust, with all save the most delicate volumes—I learned this from Eric Korn, the writer and rare book dealer—is to open and sharply close each book, or better, clap two books together, then blow on them, so that the impact and the force of air blast the dust away from the bindings into the atmosphere.
This action produces a sharp report, which is why my neighbour was to be found knocking on my door the other day enquiring whether the gun-battle in my living room was likely to last much longer. He found me, books in hand, contemplating the wall where my new bookcase will go.
The bookcase will be halfway up the stairs, on the last wall in the house not already obscured by existing shelves—or by cupboards, wardrobes, maps, pictures, hanging plants or framed certificates of competence in esoteric forms of martial art. Although it will block the light a bit, the prospect of the bookcase is raising my spirits. It’s not just that it promises to stem the lava flow of paper that spills out of storage boxes and topples from the ziggurat of books in the study, threatening to engulf the kitchen and the hall. The new shelf seems to represent something more than this: an abstract principle, evidence of the possibility of order.
The disorder of things
With the new bookcase in position every book in the house will finally have its place. That’s my plan, at least. And the new orderliness among the books will, I imagine, by some mysterious means, orient the world beyond the book: the years of accumulated paper in filing cabinets, as well as the uncharted hierarchies of documents and folders on hard disks and floppy disks, the CDs and DVDs, the videotapes, the audiotapes—and whatever other soon-to-be-superseded information storage media there may be lurking at the back of the big wooden cupboard on the upstairs landing. Systematic classification and rapid information retrieval will prevail. The new bookcase will somehow make it easier to do tax returns and operate the video recorder. It will make it easier to write.
This may seem a heavy load for a shelf to bear: that is, not just the weight of books, but the expectation of deliverance from the over-accumulation of information, from prevarication and muddle. Yet such are the dreams of those who work in the knowledge economy. For traders in the marketplace of ideas, books are inherited capital. We have amassed these antique-looking fetish objects in a search for understanding, or in an attempt to wall out the chaos of the world. But a new information age is upon us now. The heart of the library is no longer a card index; it’s a modem. Molten data pour into our homes. So book people find they inhabit a new, technologically pluralist culture. For myself, I’d like to make peace with books, with the old, fixed media—the gods we know—before I let the new ones in.
Wittgenstein and furniture
Ludwig Wittgenstein understood this desire for order, or something of it. What a difference, he wrote, a new drawer in a cabinet can make. I’m pretty certain that was the phrase he used, but at this moment I can’t lay my hands on the book it was published in. That’s because in my house non-fiction currently stops where the shelves run out, at the letter R. Wittgenstein is still stored in a box upstairs, beneath a pile of other boxes.
A new drawer in the filing cabinet, Wittgenstein proposed, was the concrete representation of a new category in thinking, one that would subtly change the meaning of all the other categories we already use. And this is what new information media are now doing to books, redefining them in relation to digital media. Hence, I think, my urge to put my library in order before engaging with the future. You may say—and I’d agree with you—that it’s a remarkable filing cabinet that can literally accommodate a new drawer. Remember, though, that Wittgenstein, as well being a philosopher, was an interior designer. He designed his sister’s house in Vienna, right down to the door furniture. So we can assume that he knew whereof he spoke. If any philosopher could fit a new drawer into a filing cabinet, it would be Wittgenstein.
Again, I think I’ve got it right about Wittgenstein and the door furniture, but I won’t be able to check till next week when the books are sorted and his works and those of his exegetes are all in one place. And if I’m wrong? Well this could, in fact, be held to support the notion above, whether or not the notion is Wittgenstein’s. That is to say, I need a new drawer to get my thinking straight. Or maybe two new drawers.
And a new shelf. And an extra pocket in the jacket. And a new folder in the subdirectory. And many more gigabytes of RAM (Random Access Memory—that paradoxical phrase). That is to say, an expansion of real and virtual storage capacity, one that holds out the possibility of a reordered view of knowledge, new categories of thought, and better organized thinking. ✭
What Wittgenstein actually wrote was this: it is incredible how helpful a new drawer can be, suitably located in our filing cabinet. (In the German he used the English word “filing-cabinet”). How literally he meant this to be understood is hard to tell.