When I was 19 I took the Amtrak to Boston. From central Wisconsin it was a 24 hour train journey, and I sat beside a scruffy learned hippie who was on his way home to Boston from Portland, OR after completing a Masters degree in European History. He was moving back in with his mom. He’d been on the train for three days already and was drunk pretty much the whole time, had a serious thing for George Harrison, and was too tall to be comfortable in the train’s standard seats. We went to the bar car for a beer, mostly, I suspect, so he could stretch his legs. He was probably thankful for someone to talk to. Hippie Historian (I don’t know his name, but I have a photo somewhere) had been reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame and pulled his tattered paperback copy out of his pocket. He eyed up the bottle of beer and picked up the book and said to me, “I can pay three dollars for a beer that I drink in a few minutes, or I can pay three dollars for a classic, timeless piece of literature.” He paused, then said, “But I’ll still pay for the beer.”
This was one of numerous quips he made, but this one in particular has stuck with me over the years, since my own interests have veered in and around the literary. I’m a bookseller after all, and have been for almost five years. When I’m not writing about art or taking classes, I’m slinging texty tomes for those who are still interested.
I say “still interested” because there’s an annoying, pervasive idea that books are dead. Much print media is indeed going the way of the horse-drawn carriage: news is read in our social media feeds, instruction manuals can be downloaded onto tablets, and phone books have been replaced by Google searches. Books are seen as quaint. Big-box bookstores have downsized or shut. And perhaps it’s in the way I look at it, but the book isn’t dead, like painting will never be dead. It’s not the book that dies, it’s the necessity for them that does. The experience of reading a physical book is still deeply etched in our collective conscious. I don’t think a single person I have ever spoken to who regularly uses e-readers uses them exclusively, and a majority of them find that the experience of reading is somehow, unquantifiably less.
I could go on and on. The Crystallized Books series by San Francisco-based artist Alexis Arnold touches on exactly this concept of the book’s current role in society. And it is the book, not the literature itself, that is in unquestionable decline. Arnold explores the materiality of the book by not totally destroying it, but literally crystallizing it, as if frozen or forgotten for a long period of time. Some of them are almost unrecognizable as books, and their pages no longer turn. If their words can no longer be read, is its purpose as a book lost completely? She questions our assumptions about how knowledge is transmitted, from the past, in the present, to the future.
Arnold was influenced by the closing of bookstores and the advent of e-books as well as access to boxes of discarded books. The crystallized books become non-functional objects, not so different from a colorful geode or an antique clock that has a long-lost history associated with it, but is valued for its rarity or aesthetic quality than its original function.
Just like record albums were replaced by CDs and MP3s, and the music industry assumed new technology would completely supersede the old, it turns out that a pretty fair segment of music enthusiasts still really, really like record albums. In this same way, even if printed books ever become limited to specialty varieties — novels, art books, etc. — there will always be some demand for them. What Arnold addresses is the book’s current frozen state — an in-between area between new and old, still recognizable but not what it once was, and still changing.