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The future of books resides in their past

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Galileo must have been royally ticked off. Lousy printers, he probably mumbled. Careless bums. You discover the moons of Jupiter and you still can’t get a decent manuscript published in this town?

What we know for sure is this: The great astronomer penned a correction in the margin of “The Assayer” (1623), a witty treatise on comets and other astronomical matters.

After 385 years, there it is: Galileo’s handwritten correction, the black ink now faded to brown, dashed across the bottom margin of a page toward the book’s end. You can find the tome in the University of Chicago Library. (Nota bene: Unless you are Galileo, it is not OK to write in the books.) Think of it as an “Oops!” that has lasted centuries.

What is amazing and inspiring about books is just that: their very physicality, the sheer thinginess of them, the fact that you can hold a book in your hands, thump a couple of knuckles on the cover, riffle the pages. You can use books as doorstops or paperweights or place mats. Indeed, to behold “The Assayer” in 2008, complete with Galileo’s inky snit, is to realize anew the uncanny emotional power of the book.

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Yet in an age in which computers are as common as cockroaches, in which the Internet is king, in which seemingly every crumb of information is being sucked up and digitized in a busy blur, does the book -- the tangible kind, not the virtual version -- have a future?

Despite all the hand-wringing by those who claim that literary culture is trapped in a downward spiral, overwhelmed by movies and video games and a 24/7 fixation on Britney Spears’ fender benders, book sales and library visits tell a different story. Last month, the Assn. of American Publishers reported that 2007 book sales were up 3.2% over 2006. Since 2002, the book business has seen a growth rate of 2.5% a year. And at the University of Chicago Library, the number of students slouching through the door topped the million mark last year for the first time.

Besides computers, students can behold marvels that don’t have to be plugged in, such as a newly acquired gem from the 14th century, “Le Roman de la Rose” (“The Romance of the Rose”), a beautifully illuminated manuscript created about 1365, based on the original by Guillaume de Lorris.

“Our library is very heavily used,” said director Judith Nadler. “The digital and the print-based will continue to coexist. We don’t want the electronic instead of the book. We want the electronic and the book.”

Thus, reports of the book’s imminent demise are, say those who toil among great stacks of them, greatly exaggerated. What is changing, admit Nadler and Alice Schreyer, director of the university’s special collections research center, is the reference function of libraries. Indisputably, the service aspect of the printed word -- dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, handbooks, technical manuals -- has gone online.

As the Web has siphoned off the more utilitarian duties of books, their other functions -- such ambitious tasks as safeguarding civilization’s most cherished ideals and essential narratives -- have only grown in importance. That was among the points made at a recent gathering at the Newberry Library, dubbed “Rare Books and the Common Good.”

With literary culture teetering betwixt screen and page, many book fanciers ponder the fate of “our common intellectual heritage,” said Steve Tomashefsky, president of the Caxton Club, established in Chicago in 1895 to study and preserve rare books, which co-sponsored the conference.

Yet Tomashefsky and his colleagues know this much for certain: Google can digitize all the books it cares to, but it can’t provide the goose bumps that arise in the presence of a 14th century book.

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Edward Tenner, visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania who spoke at the conference, said: “What’s valuable in a text is not just the text, but the way it is presented -- the typography, the materials. The growth of electronic information puts books in a new light.”

And that light often is an exquisitely reverent one, embodied in the gentle contemplations of book fanciers such as Alberto Manguel. In “The Library at Night,” published this month, the Argentine-born author and bibliophile celebrates books as brothers, as crucial companions for a lifetime.

As information is digitized, the books that remain gripped between covers seem to be cherished all the more. Yet, that too carries some peril, as Bruce Hatton Boyer, associate professor of English at National-Louis University and a member of the Caxton Club, pointed out in a recent edition of the club’s journal.

“Will we have a world in which the only value books have will be those of the rare object, making all libraries in effect rare-book libraries?”

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Schreyer hopes not. She loves her job, but she doesn’t want the “special” in special collections to make the books in her keeping seem arcane or untouchable.

“There’s an emotional rapport you get with an era by holding a relic that is hundreds of years old,” she said. “Part of the history of a book is -- who were the people who touched this book at every stage in its life?”

The “Rose” manuscript is important, Schreyer added, because scholars determined it had originally been bound with “Le Jeu des Echecs Moralise” (“The Moralized Game of Chess”), an allegory written by Jacobus de Cessolis in the 13th century, acquired by the library in 1931. Garnering “Rose” meant that the library could reunite two halves of a manuscript that had been torn asunder a century ago.

As Manguel put it in “The Library at Midnight”: “One book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries.” Looking at “The Assayer,” you can imagine Galileo wincing and sighing as he proofreads. In that enchanted instant, the centuries dissolve. Your hand is on the book; his hand is on your shoulder.

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