Thursday, August 18, 2011

Discreteness and idle worries

Ashley Hope Pérez has an enlightening (if you’re inclined toward DIY) post on scanning one’s personal library. Ashley’s moving to Paris, and so like any book lover, her mind turns to these things (hopefully after it has turned to wine and pastries and bistros and museums, etc.).

I’m not moving anywhere, but I have had a similar fantasy about having all my favorite books on my iPad. I was reading Brian Farrey’s eye-opening novel With or Without You before bed the other night. Brian writes movingly about painting and art, and one passage made me think immediately of a passage in one of my favorite novels ever, Nabokov’s Pnin. So I got out of bed and dug up my paperback of Pnin so I could find the passage, all the while cursing that I had neither Brian’s book nor Nabokov’s on the iPad that was sitting by my bed. (I do not like getting out of bed once in.)

But on my way to finding the passage I was thinking of (for fans, it’s the description of Professor Lake and his philosophy of painting), I stumbled on to another passage—one of the most important in the novel:

image

“Unless a thin film of flesh envelopes us, we die.” You know, I think this might also apply to novels. If all the worlds of all my books, with all their subtle references to, relationships with, and repudiations of each other, were separated by no more than the illusory binPnin by Vladimir Nabokov: Book Coverary barriers that separate files rather than the impermeable covers, shelves, and floors that separate them in my house, what would happen to their “tender egos”?

I’m not being entirely factious. I love books for their self-contained universes. I worry about what happens to the discreteness of those universes when there is nothing to prevent me from barging through every thin place, every interdimensional wormhole I encounter. It seems that every step toward pervasive electronic books reveals another way in which paper books are perfect technology.

PS: If you haven’t seen the new covers for the Vintage Nabokov paperbacks, do check them out. They’re gorgeous and they kind of get at what I’m saying.