The other day I walked into a museum and in a deserted, dusty room at the back saw shelves and shelves of objects that the catalogue called ‘books’. I nearly died laughing. These were huge and cumbersome things, that smelled of mildew, instead of instantly accessible files that my e-reader could access within seconds.
My curiosity was aroused – I just had to know where these things came from and what their purpose was. In a spirit of adventure I lifted one of these strange objects out of its place on the shelf and hefted it across to one of the easy chairs in the window. I admit to being baffled at first – how did one switch it on?
While exploring its surface I found the lid could be lifted and inside was an actual sheet of paper… you remember paper, don’t you? This paper was marked up as if it were the first page of an e-book, with title, author, publisher, and all the usual information. Lifting that sheet of paper revealed yet another laying below, bearing the markings that one would expect to see on the second page of an e-book. What a novel idea! Someone must have spent days coming up with such an amusing burlesque.
Even stranger, the reverse side of the paper also bore writing but I found it very inconvenient to twist my head to one side to read it. Eventually, because I became quite engrossed in the exploration, I found that the lid of the ‘book’ could be laid on its back beside the rest, and the reverse sides of the pages read almost as easily as one could read the first. I did find it very inconvenient in that in this configuration the device took up considerable space on my lap and required me to turn my head from side to side to follow the lines. The typeface was also rather quaint and quite tiny to read. No matter how much I searched the ‘book’ I never could find the control that changed the size of the font.
I suppose you might be interested in the subject of this so-called book. It turned out to be a volume of an encyclopedia, and the rest of the objects on its shelf were successive volumes of something called a ‘set.’ Since the publication date I discovered tucked into an obscure corner informed me that this was a relic from the earliest years of the twenty-first century I found it a remarkable window on an ancient era. Hardly any of its entries had information we would consider reliable today, and it eventually dawned on me that the reason must be the lack of any wiki function in this ancient publication system, preventing it from being updated with current information and scholarship.
I must have spent several hours in that musty old room and during that time I exchanged that first volume for several of the others to see what differences they might show me. Actually, they all seemed to follow a format identical with the first. I began to lose interest when I realized I could much more conveniently read one of the many modern encyclopedias accessible with my own e-reader and peruse up-to-date information. I did see other shelves in a far corner that held slightly smaller ‘books’ of the same primitive type, and was able to read that one seemed to be a copy of a novel. Becoming more familiar with the nature of these so-called books, I was able to open it while standing at the shelf, but it seemed to be no more than a text version of the story – no video versions, no actor interpreting the text aloud, no link to scholarly analysis, and no reviews. The experience of taking it to the window to pore over didn’t promise to be rich enough to be worth the effort.
I had to ask one of the museum staff about my discovery as I left. She agreed that it was an almost forgotten corner of the museum and took up space that could be employed to better purpose, but she told me that it was their contribution to historical research, and that every year or two some scholar would spend a day or more uncovering some obscure facts useful for footnotes in scholarly journals. Well, I guess it takes all kinds.