When journalists discuss their craft, they invoke contradictory clichés: “Today’s newspaper is the first draft of history,” and “Nothing is more dead than yesterday’s newspaper.” Both in a way are true. News feeds history with facts, yet most of it is forgotten. Suppose newspapers disappeared from libraries: Would history vanish from the collective memory? That is the disaster that Nicholson Baker denounces in his latest book, a J’accuse pointed at the library profession.
Librarians have purged their shelves of newspapers, he argues, because they are driven by a misguided obsession with saving space. And they have deluded themselves into believing that nothing has been lost, because they have replaced the papers with microfilm. The microfilm, however, is inadequate, incomplete, faulty, and frequently illegible. Worse, it was never needed in the first place, because contrary to another common delusion, the papers were not disintegrating on the shelves. Despite their chemistry—acids working on wood pulp in paper manufactured after 1870—they have held up very well. And now the paper massacre has spread to books. They, too, are being sold off, thrown away, and hideously damaged in hare-brained experiments aimed at preserving them. The custodians of our culture are destroying it.
As jeremiads go, this is an odd one. Wickedness has provided material for lamentation in America since the days of the Puritans. But instead of ranting against the whore of Babylon, Baker aims his indignation at Marion the librarian—not, of course, the small-time, small-town keepers of books, but their high-minded, high-flying superiors: Patricia Battin, for example, formerly the librarian of Columbia University, who led the “assault on paper” from the Commission on Preservation and Access and received an award from President Clinton in 1999 for “saving history.” Baker indicts her for destroying history and makes her into one of the chief villains of his book. The others come from foundations (Ford, Mellon), research libraries (Yale, Chicago), the National Endowment for the Humanities, and above all the Library of Congress.
They make a strange cast of characters: butchers of books from the unlikely world of libraries. Baker describes them as civil, cultivated, and generally genial—the unassuming types you would expect to encounter behind old oak desks in book-lined studies. Making the most of his novelist’s touch, he introduces each character with telling bits of description. They wear “quiet silk scarves,” bow ties, and understated suits. They gaze out at you from beneath “wise-looking eyebrows” and “cheerfully bald” foreheads or through “large, rectilinear glasses similar to those Joyce Carol Oates used to wear in pictures.” Such gentle souls could not possibly be vandals, you tell yourself. And that response puts you under the spell of Baker’s rhetoric, because he tries to show that the barbarians are not at the gate: they are already in the temple, destroying its treasures and doing so all the more effectively because they pad about in sensible shoes and tweed.
The rhetoric fuels the argument, but what is the argument itself, stripped down to a set of propositions? It goes as follows:
- Paper holds up well, even the cheapest paper made for pulp fiction from pulped wood according to the manufacturing processes developed after 1850. Baker goes over the chemistry of acidification, conceding minor points: paper with a low pH tends to be weaker than less acidic paper, and newspapers laced with alum-rosin will turn yellow if overexposed to light. But he carries his main point: despite prophecies of doom, paper made in the late nineteenth century has not disintegrated; it can be read today without undergoing damage, and there is no reason to believe that it will not last another hundred years.
- Microfilm is not an adequate substitute for paper. Its chemistry is worse. Frames that were supposed to last forever have developed blemishes and bubbles. They have faded into illegibility. They have torn and shrunk and sprouted fungi and emitted foul odors and melted together on the spool into solid lumps of cellulose. Microfilmed runs of newspapers often contain gaps where the technicians skipped pages or failed to adjust the focus. The work has been so botched that librarians have proclaimed sets to be “complete” if they lack 6 percent of their issues. And the sets are hideously expensive—about $150 a volume. During the first wave of “preservation” through microfilming, the State Library of Pennsylvania and the Free Library of Philadelphia stripped their shelves of complete runs of The Philadelphia Inquirer. A set on microfilm now costs $621,515.
Reading microfilms is hell. Hours spent cranking blurry images under a hot light and staring at a screen can turn you off research and even turn your stomach. Baker reports that a microfilm reader in the Archives of Ontario had an air-sickness bag attached to it. Sickening or not, microfilmed copies of newspapers are all we have in many cases, and they are often incomplete. Entire years are missing from important newspapers, and there are no complete sets of the originals anywhere in existence, because librarians have got rid of them. Baker puts it polemically: “A million people a day once read Pulitzer’s World; now an original set is a good deal rarer than a Shakespeare First Folio or the Gutenberg Bible.” Baker is polemical, but he is right.
- Librarians crave space. To them, space, like time, is money; and money is scarce, because their budgets are beleaguered. Yet the newspapers and books continue to pour in, their output growing inexorably year after year. Marion feels like the sorcerer’s apprentice. How can she stop the flood? Find the shelving? Fund extensions and annexes? The obvious answer is miniaturization: replace tomes with microtexts, throw away the originals, and expand the library’s holdings while keeping its shelf space constant. Baker shows how this notion captured the imagination of the country’s leading librarians and led to the stripping of shelves—“deaccessioning” in the sanitized jargon of library science. He makes the point effectively, quoting from speeches, memos, and professional journals. But then he goes further.
The obsession with space degenerated into an “ideology.” Driven by the “fear of demon Growth,” key librarians have “demonized old paper.” They hate the stuff and want to get rid of it at all costs—costs so high that they could trigger a revolt of taxpayers, to say nothing of book lovers. To fend off this danger, the nation’s leading librarians have spread a panic about the self-destructive quality of paper and then promoted technologies for destroying it in the name of preservation. Here, I think, Baker stretches his argument beyond believability. Instead of providing a credible explanation of what drove librarians to strip shelves, he makes them into villains and does some demonizing of his own—covered up with details about quiet scarves and bow ties. Nonetheless, he carries a crucial point:
Preservation meant destruction. Not always, of course. Some institutions, like the Boston Public Library, never harmed their collections. Some, like the New York Public Library, retained some sets of newspapers after microfilming them. But the Library of Congress took the lead in a book and newspaper massacre of staggering proportions. In order to microfilm works printed after 1870, the Library adopted a policy of “disbinding” them—that is, splitting them down their spines so they could be splayed open and photographed efficiently. Although it can be saved, an unbound volume, especially of old newspapers, generally gets trashed. If they don’t throw them away, libraries sell them off, often at absurdly low prices, and they find buyers—not, as a rule, among readers who would save the work but among businessmen intent on destroying it further. Baker talked himself into the warehouse of Historic Newspaper Archives, Inc., a 25,000-square-foot structure in Rahway, New Jersey, crammed with newspapers, which are cut apart and shipped out to people who want a memento of their birthday or some other event. He found a monumental set of the New York Herald Tribune in very good condition, which, he surmises, had been given for safekeeping to a library by the Trib’s owner, Mrs. Ogden Reid. It was being gutted for souvenirs, and Baker managed to buy two weeks of 1934 for $300.
The destruction was unnecessary. From 1957, the Council on Library Resources, founded by Verner Clapp, the second in command at the Library of Congress, sponsored experiments to determine the longevity of wood-pulp paper. The experimenters stripped paper out of books printed between 1900 and 1950 and attempted to age it artificially by folding it back and forth in a specially designed machine. After ten years and 500 ruined books, they concluded that most printed matter from the first half of the twentieth century would not make it to the year 2000. The anticipated body count came to 1.75 billion pages, more than enough to spread panic among the keepers of the country’s research libraries.
In order to estimate the mortality rate in their own collections, the librarians used a simplified version of the paper test: they folded a corner back and forth through a 180-degree arc on each side of a leaf. If the paper tore after two or three double folds—accompanied at times with some gentle tugging—it was considered to be doomed and scheduled to be replaced by microfilm before it disintegrated on the shelf. Librarians and student helpers folded their way through 36,500 volumes at Yale. Their conclusion: 1.3 million volumes would self-destruct before the twenty-first century. Yale adopted a “slash and burn” policy of microfilming, which eliminated half the books in its great collection of American history. Those books would be there today had the librarians not fallen for the double-fold fashion, because double-folding creates creases that tear, whereas reading involves nothing more than turning pages. Pages that would flunk the double-fold test can be read hundreds of times without any damage. Books that should have disintegrated long ago, according to the most advanced library science, are still doing very nicely—except for those that the librarians destroyed in order to preserve them.
- The destruction was brutal. Microfilming can be done without harming volumes, by placing them in cradles and adjusting the camera to the appropriate angle. However, that procedure takes time, and preservationists have been in such a hurry to save books and newspapers from their misdiagnosed deaths that they have killed them by “guillotining”—that is, by slicing them down their spines so that the unbound pages could be photographed rapidly lying flat. Once dismembered, most of them were pulped.
The experts at the Library of Congress and the Council on Library Resources have also guillotined books in order to experiment with techniques for deacidifying paper. Their most spectacular experiments involved a substance known as DEZ, or diethyl zinc. Potentially, DEZ could destroy acidity by creating an “alkaline buffer” in the fibers of the paper, but it has an unfortunate side effect: it bursts into flames on contact with air and explodes if exposed to water. Although it works better in bombs and missiles than in books, the library’s experimenters used it as the key ingredient in a facility intended to deacidify a million books a year. In fact, as Baker remarks, they designed “a large fuel-air bomb that happened to contain books.” Sure enough, it exploded in trial runs conducted by NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1985 and 1986. Further experiments produced further disasters, until, thousands of books and millions of dollars later, the program was abandoned.
Meanwhile, however, the preservationists devised other experiments, including a million-dollar project to force rats to inhale zinc oxide dust in order to prove that deacidified books could be sniffed without harm. Together with the microfilmers, deaccessioners, and demolition crews, they razored, guillotined, chainsawed, pickled, gassed, baked, burned, and dissolved vast quantities of printed matter. Baker may overdo the anthropomorphic verbs and slant the technical descriptions in a way that makes librarians look like mad scientists. But he produces enough hard evidence to make a book lover’s skin crawl.
- The destruction was expensive. Baker comes up with plenty of examples of books and newspapers that were discarded or sold at derisive prices by libraries and then sold again for hefty sums by dealers. He also documents instances where it cost more to buy the microfilm of a book than the original. And after citing case after case of expensive solutions to misconceived problems, he proposes a relatively cheap and simple solution of his own: store the originals in air-conditioned warehouses, where they will last indefinitely. Short of that, do nothing: “Leave the books alone, I say, leave them alone, leave them alone.” But the librarians preferred to spend vast sums in order to comply with the orthodoxy of their profession: microfilm and discard. What was the cost? Baker estimates that American libraries got rid of 975,000 books worth $39 million. The economics of the whole business seems as wacky as the science.
The cultural loss cannot be estimated. Libraries usually began to strip their shelves of newspapers with issues dating from 1870 onward—that is, beginning at the time when the mass circulation dailies began to develop. By the end of the century, thanks to cheap paper, Linotype, and high-powered printing, the newspapers of Pulitzer, Hearst, and other press barons had become a major force in American life. They brought us more than the Spanish-American War. They shaped the emergence of mass culture, consumerism, professional sports, and great stretches of American literature—produced in large part by reporters turned novelists. How can historians study those subjects without reading daily newspapers? But how can they read the newspapers, if they have disappeared? Microfilm will not do, not only because it is riddled with faults and gaps but also because it fails to convey the texture of the printed page—the way headlines, layout, touches of color, and the tactile qualities of broadsheet and tabloid orient the reader and guide the eye through meaningful patches of print, not to mention the cartoons, comics, and photographs that can be as revealing as print. According to an advertisement of University Microfilms, the stripping of newspapers from libraries was “our own slum clearance program.” Baker comes closer to the truth: “This country has strip-mined a hundred and twenty years of its history.”
- The librarians may have had good intentions, but they acted in bad faith. Having convinced themselves that they were running out of space and that microfilming was the answer, they concocted a false crisis in order to clear their shelves. The books, they said, were burning. They used other expressions: dissolving, rotting, crumbling. “Turning to dust” was a favorite metaphor, served up with the adverb “literally” to mean that some kind of chemical combustion was consuming the books as they stood on the shelves. What kind? None of the paper scientists produced an accurate analysis.
No one found a single smoldering volume or ashes or evidence of any kind. No matter: Slow Fires, a documentary horror film commissioned by the Council on Library Resources, spread the false notion of combustibility; and false consciousness spread through the ranks of librarians, heightened by hype from their leaders, such as Patricia Battin: “80% of the materials in our libraries are published on acid paper and will inevitably crumble. The Library of Congress alone reports that 77,000 volumes in its collections move each year from the ‘endangered’ state to brittleness and thence to crumbs.” After sufficient citation, the figure of 77,000 (or in some versions 70,000) crumbling volumes hardened into solid fact, accompanied by other firm bits of library pseudo-science: collections doubled every sixteen years; 3.3 million volumes will disintegrate within twenty years; and it will cost $358 million to rescue them by microfilming, although the expense will actually be a saving, because it will create the possibility of freeing shelf space by getting rid of 16.5 million duplicates scattered needlessly around the country.
These nine propositions add up to a terrible indictment of a venerable profession. Are there no arguments for the defense? Instead of going over them impartially, Baker gives full vent to what he calls his “prosecutorial urge.” He stacks the evidence in his favor, not by distorting it but by rhetorical devices, such as putting quotations out of context and splicing comments into them. In recounting an interview with Patricia Battin, for example, he intersperses her remarks with those of other people, which seem to refute them, and with refutations of his own. At one point, he has her tell him, “I don’t think that saving space was the issue.” Then he quotes an article by one of her fellow librarians at Columbia: “Think about space costs….” He links that quotation with an inflammatory remark about book crumbling from another passage in the same article: “The central stacks of all major libraries will soon be condemned as unsanitary landfill—the world’s intellectual garbage dumps.” Then he switches back to Battin: “And yet to me she said, in the sincerest possible voice, ‘I don’t think it’s your librarians that have ever tried to miniaturize in order to save space.'” Decontextualization of this kind produces guilt by association.
Producing guilt is the object of the prosecutorial urge; but in his determination to damn some of the country’s most eminent librarians, Baker sometimes overstates his case. Space is a serious problem for librarians, not one that they attempt to conjure away by “demonization” or by giving free rein to some psychic loathing of paper. Paper can be fragile. Books are often damaged. Microfilming does preserve at least some of the historical record, even if it cannot be an adequate substitute for the original works. Libraries no longer guillotine books in order to microfilm them, and they no longer throw away the originals. Most of Baker’s horror stories date from an era that has passed, leaving a trail of destruction, to be sure, but also a reaction against its misguided policies. After some scandals about the loss of precious books, the New York Public Library committed itself to a strong stand against deaccessioning; and other libraries have followed suit. Not that the danger has disappeared. Baker rightly warns that the enthusiasm for digitizing could produce another purge of paper. But he lavishes most of his indignation on practices that have been abandoned—with one notable exception.
In April 1999, Baker read a suspiciously understated announcement by the British Library that it was getting rid of American newspapers printed after 1850—the greatest collection in the world, because it included full runs of the most important dailies, which by then had disappeared from the shelves of American libraries. They were to be replaced by the faulty microfilms that had caused the devastation in the first place, and they were to be auctioned off or pulped. The auction seemed certain to be dominated by speculators who would buy them up at trivial prices in order to cut them apart and sell them off as souvenirs.
As soon as he got wind of this impending disaster, Baker tried to prevent it. He implored the British Library to reverse its policy, to give the newspapers to some institution that would preserve them, to accept a “preservation bid,” or at least to delay the auction so that he and other bibliophiles could mount a rescue operation. But the library would not listen. In October 1999, it sold the collection off, in large part to the speculators. A priceless treasure was squandered, a public trust betrayed, and only a small proportion of the collection survived, because Baker himself bought it, after cashing in his savings and forming a not-for-profit corporation with the help of a few foundations. Complete, uncrumbled runs of the World, the Herald Tribune, and other great dailies now sit safely in a storage facility that Baker constructed near his house in Maine. “Sometimes I’m a little stunned to think that I’ve become a newspaper librarian, more or less, and have the job of watching over this majestic, pulp-begotten ancestral stockpile,” he concluded. It’s a great story, told with zest and humor: Don Quixote tilting against the British Library and winning at least one round. But how does it stand up as history?
Excerpts from Baker’s book giving a short version of his argument originally appeared in The New Yorker. This worked well as investigative journalism, but the book-length version raises the problem of blending reportage into a general account of library stewardship since World War II. The result is not conventional history. The text does not follow a chronological order or any clear organizational pattern at all. Instead, it consists of vignettes, brief, brilliant essays strung together in a way that is intended to stun the reader and stoke the indignation as one bizarre episode follows another.
Implicit in it all, however, is an argument about institutional change, which can be summarized as follows: In 1944, an influential librarian named Fremont Rider propounded a “natural law” of library growth. It seemed to prove by impressive mathematical formulas that America’s libraries were hurtling into a spectacular space crisis. The only solution, according to Rider, lay in the technology developed by the Office of Strategic Services during World War II: books could be replaced by microcards or some other product of miniaturization. Verner Clapp, the number-two man at the Library of Congress, took up the cause and proselytized from the Council on Library Resources, where he became director in 1956. During more than thirty years at the summit of the library world, Clapp promoted experiments in “preservation” that led to the microfilming and loss of millions of newspapers and books. From 1968 to 1984, the Preservation Microfilming Office of the Library of Congress filmed ninety-three million pages and “threw out more than ten million dollars’ worth of public property.”
It took some effort, however, to wean other librarians away from the notion that preservation meant keeping books. So Clapp’s successor at the council, Warren Haas, mounted a PR offensive, and he enlisted Patricia Battin, the powerful head librarian at Columbia University, to spread propaganda from the Commission on Preservation and Access. By articles, lectures, colloquia, congressional hearings, Slow Fires, and gossip through grapevines, they spread the word that the country’s libraries would turn to dust if the shelves were not purged of paper and filled with film. And they perpetrated the double-fold test, just the thing to justify the librarians’ desire to save space by getting rid of books. The microfilming and deaccessioning frenzy came to a climax in the 1980s. But the tide turned around 1994, when Patricia Battin retired from the commission. A reaction set in, led by sensible bibliographers like G. Thomas Tanselle; and the annihilation of the newspapers at the British Library provided a final scandal, which brought the story to a close in 1999.
As stories go, it is surprisingly simple. Misguided zealots misdiagnosed a problem, and produced a national catastrophe by spreading misinformation. The disparity between cause and effect cries out for explanation. What fundamentally was at work in the process—sheer stupidity? flaws in institutions? the influence of one or two powerful personalities and the appeal of a few striking ideas? Questions of that sort differentiate history from most journalism. Baker does not ask them; he merely points his finger at the guilty parties. But there is an interpretation implicit in the finger-pointing.
A surprising number of the villains in the plot turn out to have had some connection with the CIA, Operations Research, missile defense, the Pentagon, or a branch of the military-industrial complex. Baker emphasizes that the obsession with microfilming developed, like the CIA itself, from the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Verner Clapp spread it from the Library of Congress while secretly working as “a consultant for the CIA,” and the line of consultants leads right up to the present librarian, James Billington, whose earlier CIA connection is flagged in a long and rather irrelevant endnote. The “war scientists and CIA consultants” were thickest on the ground at the Council on Library Resources—so thick, in fact, that Baker’s poker-faced summaries of their c.v.’s suggests a Dr. Strangelove lurking at every water cooler.
His account of the mad experiments with book baking and DEZ conjures up something nastier—systematic annihilation, or what he calls “destroying to preserve.” A quotation from The Washington Post evokes the same associations: “Must the Library of Congress Destroy Books to Save Them?” The reader cannot help but think of the most haunting remark from the Vietnam War: “It was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.” And the chain of associations turns still darker, when Baker talks about “putting old books in gas chambers.” Here the argument by innuendo has got out of hand. The librarians did not butcher books in the way that the Nazis annihilated people.
Should the librarians also be condemned, as Baker claims, for destroying history? Perhaps, if newspapers really can be counted as history’s first draft. Baker seems to adopt this view through the vivid use of metaphor—for example, when he describes a shipment of 4,600 volumes of newspapers including a complete set of the Chicago Tribune as “sixteen pallets, ten tons of major metropolitan history.” But just as microfilms should not be confused with original documents, history should not be equated with its sources. It is an argument from evidence, not the evidence itself.
Had Baker pursued this line of thought, he could have strengthened his case, for newspapers, studied as sources, open up vast possibilities for deepening our understanding of the past. Not that they are transparent windows into a world we have lost, as Baker seems to think. They are collections of stories, written by professionals within the conventions of their craft. But if taken as stories—news stories, a peculiar kind of narrative—they convey the way contemporaries construed events and found some meaning in the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world around them.
For many readers today, the front page of The New York Times provides a map of what happened yesterday. They read it as they read a map, for orientation—usually from right to left, or from the lead story to the off lead, following clues from headlines, pausing over pictures, wandering below the fold or into interior pages, according to suggestions from layout and typography. The editors of the Times take those anticipated reactions into account when they design page one every day at their 4:30 PM conference. An implicit dialogue develops between the producers of the cognitive map and the consumers who put it to use. The style of the stories and the conventions of the layout change over time, suggesting subtle shifts in ways of viewing the world—nothing that can be pinned down with precision but something that undergirds experience and that historians need to understand. They can never reach an adequate understanding if they have to work from microfilm.
To be sure, a history of worldviews requires more than careful reading of original sets of newspapers. Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga showed the way by consulting evidence of everything from table manners and death rituals to forms of speech and styles of dress. Anthropologists have demonstrated how such material can be worked into rigorous reconstructions of attitudes and value systems. But the evidence thins as the anthropologically informed historian attempts to penetrate further back in time. Chapbooks and broadsides were the most popular kind of printed matter in early modern Europe—so popular, in fact, that libraries did not deign to collect them. Historians such as Robert Mandrou have picked through their remains in an effort to reconstruct mentalités collectives, but the result is disappointing. How will historians piece together a picture of American mentality in the Gilded Age if they have no newspapers—real newspapers, full-size and in full color—to consult?
In short, Baker is correct to condemn the deaccessioning of newspapers; and he could have made his case still stronger if he had worked with a more adequate notion of history. His own strength lies in literature, particularly in his ability as a novelist to summon up emotion by descriptive passages of minute, marvelously fashioned detail. If read for its literary qualities, his book succeeds even better than it does as reportage. It belongs, as mentioned, to a peculiar genre, the American jeremiad. But that raises problems, because Americans have been told that the sky is falling, the ocean rising, the earth quaking, the economy recessing, the presidency degrading, and the family disappearing, while the cosmos is running out of time. How can they work up a lather about old newspapers and books? Cows are going mad, whales are being beached, glaciers are melting, forests are burning, species are vanishing, lungs are collapsing, the ozone layer is about to go, and social welfare as we knew it has gone. Why should we get mad at librarians?
In order to whip up indignation, Baker deploys a formidable array of rhetorical devices. He has perfect pitch in his choice of narrative voice. Essentially, he adopts the tone of Innocence Abroad. How did I get into this mess? he asks the reader with false naiveté: “In 1993, I decided to write some essays on trifling topics—movie projectors, fingernail clippers, punctuation, and the history of the word ‘lumber.'” Before we have a chance to ask why Baker should be writing about fingernail clippers, we are swept up in a mad tale about librarians destroying books.
Baker makes us his traveling companion in the strange world of librarianship, nudging us confidentially in the midst of interviews by parenthetical remarks and editorial comments. For example, after showing us a beautiful discarded volume of the Chicago Tribune with the seal of Harvard University and a bookplate proclaiming it to be purchased from the bequest of Ichabod Tucker, class of 1791, he calls up a librarian at Harvard in order to find out whether it was sold off as a duplicate. “Oh, we would never have hard copies going back that far—they just don’t keep,” she replies. He then shoots back, not to her but in an aside to us: “They don’t keep, kiddo, if you don’t keep them.”
The colloquialism and the gotcha mode of quoting makes us complicit with the author and eases our way through esoteric detail about chemical formulas and microphotography. After explaining how scientists devised tests and designed charts to trace a non-phenomenon, the degradation of paper, with mathematical precision, Baker explodes: “This is of course utter horseshit and craziness.” “Right,” we want to say to him. “Right on.”
The esoterica matters, however, because Baker needs to establish his bona fides in the labs and to give the reader a sense of being there—“there” being above all the Library of Congress:
Diethyl zinc (or DEZ, as it’s jauntily acronymed) was the active ingredient in a patented technique developed at the Library of Congress in the early seventies. You arrange your acid-beset books in milk crates, spine down, up to five thousand of them at a time, and stack the crates in a ten-foot-high retrofitted space-simulation chamber that bears some resemblance to a railroad tank car; then you shut the round door at the end, suck out the air, and let the miracle DEZ fog creep in.
The description has enough science to make it believable and enough rhetorical spin to bring out the absurdity of the whole process.
Baker uses the same techniques in his novels: microscopic detail, served up straight but with enough disconcerting language to make it hilarious or shocking or merely intimate in a way that increases the bond between author and reader, as in this passage from his 1988 novel, The Mezzanine:
…Sometimes it is more satisfying to wait with your hand on your own pen in your shirt pocket until the end of a story you are being told, and then, nodding and laughing, remove it from your pocket, hearing the click of its clip as it slips off the shirt pocket’s fabric and springs against the barrel, followed by a second click as you bare the ballpoint—these two sounds being like the successively more remote clicks that initiate a long-distance call that you come to associate with the voice of the person who will answer—audible even in loud restaurants, because the burble of voices is of a much lower frequency.*
The all-seeing “I” has a very good ear, and in Double Fold it picks up audio clues of the same sort, except now they are faintly sickening. Thus an account of a newspaper butchery run by Timothy Hughes in Williamsport, Pennsylvania:
He is an undemonstrative man with a small mustache, honest in his business dealings, who was formerly on the board of the Little League Museum in South Williamsport. His usual practice is to “disbind” the newspapers—that is, cut them out of their chronological context with a utility knife (you can hear the binding strings pop softly as the blade travels down the inner gutter of the volume)—and sell the eye-catching headline issues (Al Capone, the Lusitania, Bonnie and Clyde, Amelia Earhart) or issues containing primordial Coke ads or Thomas Nast illustrations, shrink-wrapped against white cardboard, at paper shows (where buyers gather to look over vintage postcards, baseball cards, posters, and other ephemera) or through his printed catalog or website.
The long sentences, parenthetical piling up of associations, and direct play on the senses—here the soft “pop” of the binding strings carries the whole passage—mark Baker’s variety of virtuoso hyperrealism in reportage as well as fiction. But knifing newspapers in real life is not the same thing as clicking ballpoint pens in novels. It is vandalism. Yet the vandals, as Baker describes them, are a congenial lot, set off by reassuringly small mustaches and professorial bow ties. (Baker seems to have a thing about bow ties. He introduces his chief villain, Verner Clapp, as “polymathic, bow-tie-wearing,” and describes another bad guy, Daniel Boorstin, a former Librarian of Congress, as “a chronic bow-tie-wearer.”) The details make the indictment believable, because Baker does not ascribe evil motives to the villains of the plot. He simply records the disasters produced by their misguided policies. As Innocence Abroad, he seems to take in the entire landscape with trustworthy neutrality. His narrator’s “I” is a camera. It sees through everything, and exposes the whole system to be rotten.
Hyperrealism as a morality tale: it is a tour de force and a great read. But is it true? On the whole, I think it is, although it is less innocent than it seems. It should be read as a journalistic jeremiad rather than as a balanced account of library history over the last fifty years. And it also should be read for its policy recommendations. Baker makes four. All deserve support:
- Libraries that receive public money should as a condition of funding be required to publish monthly lists of discards on their Web sites, so that the public has some way of determining which of them are acting responsibly on behalf of their collections.
The Library of Congress should lease or build a large building near Washington, and in it they should put, in call-number order, everything that they are sent by publishers and can’t or don’t want to hold on site. If the library is unwilling to perform this basic function of a national repository, then Congress should designate and fund some other archive to do the job.
Several libraries around the country should begin to save the country’s current newspaper output in bound form.
The National Endowment for the Humanities should either abolish the US Newspaper Program and the Brittle Books Program entirely, or require as a condition of funding that (1) all microfilming and digital scanning be nondestructive, and (2) all originals be saved afterward.
What of the wonderful runs of newspapers that have disappeared from the library shelves? A few have survived, but most have been lost, irretrievably lost. Unlike bison and forests, they cannot be revived. The moral of the tale stands as a corrective to the lore of the journalists: Nothing is more dead than yesterday’s newspaper, except yesterday’s destroyed newspaper.
P.S. The Council on Library and Information Resources, based in Washington, D.C., has just issued a draft report recommending a nationwide effort, backed by Congress, to save original copies of books and newspapers. It also proposes steps to be taken toward a national preservation policy that would include audiovisual and digital materials, which are even more endangered than print on paper. These proposals were discussed at a public meeting in the New York Public Library on March 22. They coincide with some of Nicholson Baker’s recommendations and represent a repudiation of the policies that he condemned and that were propagated by the former Council on Library Resources.
April 26, 2001