The Paper Chase 

Nicholson Baker refutes the digital solution

Wednesday, Jun 20 2001

Nicholson Baker‘s Double Fold takes its title from the librarians’ ritual of testing a book‘s ”usability“ by creasing a page corner at random and bending it back and forth. If the paper tears, the book is declared unusable and transferred to a ”Brittle Books Department,“ from whence its binding will likely be ”guillotined,“ its pages microfilmed and then discarded. This practice, Baker writes, in a typical combination of matter-of-fact rationality and wild-eyed paper fetishism, ”is of course utter horseshit and craziness. A leaf of a book is a semi-pliant mechanism. It was made for non-acute curves, not for origami.“

Beginning with a 1994 New Yorker article on the destruction of card catalogs, Baker -- best known as the author of Vox, The Fermata, The Mezzanine and other novels -- has made the salvation of libraries’ paper holdings his private obsession and public passion. In Double Fold he records the madness perpetrated by librarians who, in their technophilic hunger for microfilm and digitization, see no contradiction in the idea of ”destroying to preserve.“ Anyone who loves books -- not just as disposable receptacles of that Internet-era bugaboo, content -- but as ingenious bits of technology in themselves, semimagical objects worthy of care and respect, will sympathize with Baker‘s quest, as will anyone who has ever dizzied himself reading illegible microfilm from an uncooperative machine.

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Baker debunks the myth that all paper printed after 1870 is rapidly turning to dust, in the name of which, he estimates, government microfilming grants have sponsored the destruction of nearly a million books: ”It’s as if the National Park Service felled vast wild tracts of pointed firs and replaced them with plastic Christmas trees.“ Much of libraries‘ irreplaceable stock of bound newspapers has been destroyed as well, though Baker has personally salvaged over 11,000 volumes with a combination of foundation grants and his retirement savings.

Effortlessly guiding his reader through such obscurities as Arrhenius equations, pyrophoric compounds and redox blemishes, Baker has written an extremely literate rant. He miraculously turns the minutiae of library bureaucracy into an engrossing tale of purloined mummies, CIA spooks and deceitful bow-tie-wearing librarians. He will not likely rest soon: The threat to books has not gone away. Equally bibliocidal digital dreams are replacing the mania for microfilm. ”Leave the books alone,“ writes Baker, ”leave them alone, leave them alone.“

  • Nicholson Baker refutes the digital solution

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