William EvansComment

Troglodyte’s Revenge

William EvansComment

In the present day, it’s the new big thing, short and sweet, 140 characters or fewer, since texting is such tedium. How can one possibly say any more and still keep up with Top Stories on my iPhone?

The evolution of literature, beginning with Hammurabi’s Code ‘printed’ on stone, evidently has led to the present day Babble of eBooks and those other lower-case-first-letter inventions. The one constant remaining is the process of sight itself–from retina to optic nerve to brain translating to comprehension. Reading cuneiform symbols converted them in their day to meaning. Chinese calligraphy is an art form brought to life by freehand strokes of bamboo and brush. Middle Eastern calligraphy is simply gorgeous art work, even before one gets to the meaning.

 
Egyptian reliquary – Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi, UAE

Egyptian reliquary – Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi, UAE

 
Calligraphy in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Calligraphy in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

We in the West have gone from symbols to an alphabet of letters and back again. Pictograms tell us where the restrooms are. Smiley faces and stick figures slapped on minivans are signs the end is near.

I have friends who wouldn’t be caught dead with a newspaper, depending entirely on their electronic devices to fetch them the news. Some only read news summaries on their iPhones. Other friends recently declared proudly that they’ve taken photos of all their mementos, letters, trophies, et al., sent the digital images into the cloud then threw the actual stuff away, which I find rather poignant. What kind of memory can be improved upon by a photo that the actual object hasn’t given you? It’s as if the immediacies of touch and smell have vanished from their lives, comforted only by an invisible net of electrons. Perhaps they are preparing to travel to Mars and need to save space.

The video fireplace comes to mind. Were movies and television the original culprits, preparing innocent children to accept the passive role of ‘watcher’?

I’m tired of hearing about the Cloud, that euphemism for massive data stores maintained right here on terra firma. Not even close to being ephemeral, all hardware and Internet cabling, the closest being the enormous amount of AC air to keep the acres of warehouses chilled. But ‘cloud’ sounds way cool–like science fiction–or just stoner talk.

In contrast, after taking Layla out for her morning stroll, I pick up the morning Washington Post and New York Times from the driveway, and go find the coffee to read them with. I read my books the old fashioned way, turning pages and sipping wine. After a long day staring at a monitor for work, I have little desire to continue doing it for entertainment. If it’s worth reading, it’s worth reading well, or some such expression. As much as the technology is fascinating, I prefer that it doesn’t own me. Maybe when I get that chip implant I’ll stop reading hard covers.

I write drafts of fiction and poetry longhand, no doubt because that was how I began writing as a kid. I wrote several chapbooks’ versions of the poems about Ryan, clutching the chapbook [1] and a pen wherever I went for years. Packing for a trip, the chapbook and extra pens went along for the ride.

There’s an emotional bond created by handwriting that typing doesn’t come close to providing. Yes, the work eventually needs to be digitally transcribed if it’s to be disseminated, but those first few drafts done longhand are the critical first steps in the process. Also, I admit I want to see how it fits for real on the printed page. The line breaks and the line lengths are essential parts of a poem’s composition, as are graphic type, font sizes, page layouts.

I save my writing drafts, which is another reason for writing by pen. I save electronic versions as well, though not as frequently. With handwritten drafts, you can see original verses, their edits, added lines and verses, all on a single page. Probably comes from the decades of layering one design sketch over the previous one, working toward a final solution. These just aren’t as readily understood when viewed on a computer. Where the computer offers accuracy, sketching by hand brings one closer to the subconscious image being pursued, be it a building or poem.


Beginning in the 1990s, the opinion of most pontificators (aka wise guys) was that the book was going the way of the Dodo, and as if to prove it, so were big box bookstores. Vengeance is whose?

So when I told people I designed libraries for a living, they would gently ask, ‘aren’t they going away?’

If libraries and books are disappearing, why are communities then and now continuing to invest in them? I smile at the query and go through a spiel along the lines of ‘libraries are community resource centers’ (true enough) and ‘collaboration’ places. No use explaining some of us still like the aesthetics of the printed page.

Some universities have been moving their entire collections online.

In the 90s driving I-85 south to visit a friend, noticing the mile markers, I had an image of how a Colonial-era post road sign might impress travelers of that time. Then considered what reading a letter that had taken weeks to arrive would mean to writer and recipient alike. (This was a several-hours trip I was driving.) Letters were important in the days of bad roads and slow coaches. As physical evidence, that far back people saw importance in the mental worlds of those who cared for them, and the same in return.

Letters were important growing up, living hundreds of miles from where I was certain I belonged.

One takeaway from that long drive to South Carolina was a quiet lament. In future times, who would ever treat emails as archival objects when they seem more like vapor mail? What signposts and correspondence would a later generation discover from an age of email and texting? OMG! UR point?

The letters between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are often quoted by historians. Twitter is a second-grader’s speed.

In the mid-1980’s my partner and I were interviewing the Arlington County librarians for their new Central Library. Our architectural firm was a bit unique in that we programmed and budgeted libraries, before designing them inside and out. Programming is done early, developing the essential parts of a building, sizes of collections, the number of patron seats, staff offices, everything that would require physical space in the building. Ideally programming and construction budgets are developed together. A building program is a spreadsheet (or database for complicated ones) that gets transcribed by architects into 3-D space. I loved considering how a library program might translate into live places for people to read. And I particularly enjoyed designing the library desks.

As we talked to the Arlington librarians, a question about the library’s card catalog came up. Back in the day, these were sizable pieces of furniture, with trays holding cards on each of the 20,000-50,000 books in a library collection, with name, author, publisher, date of printing, Library of Congress catalog number, the book’s Dewey Decimal number, etc. All typed by hand on small cards. All maintained by hand. In the 1980s there was already discussion about creating online catalogs. [2] It probably didn’t take the rest of the decade for libraries to replace their card catalogs. Similarly, the reference books went digital. In the case of the latter, I mourn the loss of those leather-bound volumes.

The main point is that librarians were embracing the digital age a lot sooner than the general population, sooner than lawyers and doctors–I know of a handful of architects who still like to draw by hand instead of CAD software. Librarians are in the information business, not, like some believe, in the tradition business. I’ll leave the rest of this for another blog, but you might bear this in mind the next time Google can’t get you an answer, going past the first ten or twenty ‘pages’ in an online search. Go visit your local reference librarian.

So what, you may ask should a library hold, if not the full sets of Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book?

I recently unboxed my transistor radio from when I was a kid. Why it got saved, I have no clue, but I find it amusing to recall when it was part of my life. I listened to the complete Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Band on AM radio no less, WOWO in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It will be thrown out at some point, but finding it again was a kick. But what would I possibly want with a photo of it?

If I were traveling to Mars, and needing to decide what to take, it wouldn’t be too hard to choose: a lightweight laptop and Nikon with several lenses. And, alright, if I could sneak it onboard, a blank chapbook and pen.


[1] About the only place you’ll run across the term, ‘chapbook’ is in poetry, but the term goes back further into history, meaning any short published tract. Thomas Payne printed bunches of them, as did other agitators in Colonial times. I’ve taken to blank page ‘chap books’ to write stories and poems

[2] OPAC–online public access catalog.