The Joy of Old Library Books

I can’t be the only person who gets sheer joy out of discovering ancient library books. The ones that are tucked away in the basement where nobody even remembers them. The ones that you have to open without breathing because it could crumble into dust at any minute. The ones with the flowerly language that fills a beautiful minute with what could have just taken a few seconds. The ones that you absuolutely cannot believe they allow you to check out and just stuff into your backback and walk out of there. It’s like being an art theif. It’s like being atime traveller.

I’m holding right now an original copy of “The DIagnosis of Stupor and Coma” by Plum and Posner. This book changed the world so much that they released many versions of it. But this is the first version. I don’t know how many copies of this book exist anymore, but one of them is right here with me. With a spine that has seen better days. With call numbers from the library written directly on the book’s cover. WIth a little slip of paper showing that someone checked this book out on Novemeber 7th, 1984. And on February 19th of 2006. And many other dates, but none anywhere recent. Who were those people? Did they find as much joy as I did in carefully turning the pages?

Someone wrote all over chapter one. Possibly multiple someones because there were several writing utensils used. They wrote the word “Evidence” as if at long last they had found what they were looking for. They underlined some passages in red pen, probably never realizing some day I would be judging them.

This book has a story unique to this volume and a story unique to the physical book itself. Sure, this is where the term “locked-in syndrome” was invented, but to whose eyes did that term flow? Who read it and agreed? Who read it and scoffed?

If I weren’t so conscientious, maybe I’d leave a note in this book for the next person who comes along someday. But this will suffice.

Thoughts on "The Art of Saving Relics"

I've just read the Scientific American story by Sarah Everts called "The Art of Saving Relics" and I found it to be the sort of great science writing that brings up an issue in a way not normally considered. Normally, when we think about the degradation of plastic over time, we think about what a shame it is that it doesn't break down faster. That conservation perspective, of watching plastic fill up our oceans and landfills, is turned on its head by this article which pitches a different kind of conservation related to plastics -- the kind where a museum is fighting to preserve plastics.

The examples given of the objects that need preserving are quite iconic: the acrylic paintings of Warhol, the spacesuits from the original moon landings, and so on. The article tells the stories about the discovery that these plastic treasures are degrading, and the efforts taken to try and find methods to detect the problems and solve them. The descriptions of leaking fumes and discoloration assist the reader in realizing what the museum is up against. Especially compelling to me the decay of old film -- where even digitizing the content is not the same as preserving the original.

This article makes me wonder what else is impermanent that we take for granted today. What else will crumble over time until only the written descriptions remain?

I recommend the article, it is some good stuff.

K, But Do You Ever Write Fiction, Though?

Asking a science communicator whether they have ever written fiction is kind of like asking a lion tamer if they've ever tried their routine with a hippopotamus. Yes, that would also be impressive, and yes, there are skillsets that would transfer, and yes I have entertained the idea and have also attended many hippopotamus shows that make me want to find my own hippo mouth to stick my neck into -- but no, it's not really my thing.

Young me tried out fiction quite a bit. I pray every night that every scrap of my old fanfiction has been wiped clean from the net. It had the same problem that a lot of teenage fanfiction had. Here is an actual excerpt: "The tunnel was very deep, and everyone was screaming and wailing as they went down." And another: "My crutch fell out from under me and I collapsed into a kneeling position, waiting for the end." I wrote some weapons grade angst back in the day.

And every once in awhile, I just let myself write some unhindered nonsense that usually ends up as a poem or crumpled up in the wastebasket or both. But, truth be told, there is enough interesting stuff going on in the world around us everyday that we don't need fiction nearly as much as we need non-fiction.

I think everybody goes through a phase in their life as they are growing up when they get downright depressed about reality and what it has to offer. Declaring in a frustrated and yet somehow monotone voice “This is lame. Everything’s lame.” Fortunately, later on in life (at least I hope so), something unusual and true tickles them in the brain in just the right way to spark up their wonder yet again. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re all held hostage on a space rock hurtling around a ridiculously hot ball of gas suspended by nothing but the as of yet poorly understood fabric of spacetime. Or maybe it’s a particular moment staring into the eyes of an animal and realizing the alienness that lies within, capable of staring back at you in just such an alien moment of non-understanding. Or maybe it’s the color of the sunset, and realizing that those colors aren’t in the sky but twirling and mixing at the back of your brain in an inexplicable way wherein red might not be red at all to anyone else you know.

And so, I think it is important to communicate wonder where we see it. And as appealing as it is to disappear into a land of fairies and magic, the true tales of amoeba and black holes are not some sort of poor substitute hocked by a secondary school teacher attempting to trick you into paying attention in class -- and in my opinion, these non-fictions are the more powerful for wonderment.

What do you think? What do fiction and non-fiction mean to you?