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Bookshelves are us. So are visits to Philadelphia's great book exchange— if only to find out-of-print books (my favorites are The Book Trader, House of Our Own, The Last Word, Bookhaven, Port Richmond Books and Brickbat). But the days of reshuffling tomes in our living rooms or making peripatetic ventures to bookstores— or even finding libraries close to home— are waning. Though I own many books, I also possess the complete writings of authors I value in files on my laptop.
You are, after all, reading this essay on-line. In fact, most of us are likely to search and read on-line as much as from paper and click our way through more books than we can read on our Kindles, Nooks and iPads. These days, teachers are accustomed to seeing students download texts and squint for the lack of animated images as they read Moby Dick or Remembrance of Things Past on their cell phone screens (dictionaries are OK).
Most young people live in a virtual universe; the rest of us are virtually virtual, no matter if we think otherwise or try to resist.
When writing was dangerous
Each day, books, articles and everything else printed throughout human history are scanned, digitized and committed to official and unofficial archives. The original documents, rightly regarded as treasures, are kept far from human eyes, fingers and breath. On the flip side, of course, billions of pages are accessible to the public as entities in a vast, ever expanding archive— for now.
These developments weigh most heavily on writers, especially if, like Andrei Codrescu, they've lived through a century in which owning books and the very acts of reading and writing not only held the promise of knowledge but also the possibility of creating an inner life and career.
Codrescu, whose voice you might have heard over the years on NPR's "All Things Considered," is a poet, novelist, essayist, editor, anthologist, (retired) college teacher, and founder (in 1983) of the journal, Exquisite Corpse (on-line since 1996). His literary life began in the 1960s in Sibiu, Romania.
"I was a secular Jew in a Christian Orthodox world that was officially atheist," he relates, living in a country with "registered typewriters, forbidden copiers, a place where writing was deemed more dangerous than bombs."
Salvation in poetry
He sneaked into a Russian Bookstore (the Communists were "book people," he reminds us), bought a notebook and began the "archive of my young mind," not knowing that by 2012 he would find himself handing over his oeuvre"“ and thousands of other valued and sometimes rare printed texts— to become archived and digitized at Louisiana State University, where he has taught since 1983.
Codrescu lost his first notebook, or it was stolen, and it becomes a leitmotif for his reflections on his life and writing, the fate of his"“ and all— books. Bibliodeath, then, is a sort of a philosophical autoeulogy and, like Codrescu's other work, equally erudite and rambunctious, speculative and alchemical, personal and probing.
As a poet, his prose is a deft raven of intelligence, wit, real and occult flights. Lamenting that all of his life's writings are by now in hard drives and The Cloud, he realizes that technology "has turned me into an upside down pyramid whose tip writes this."
Notes in the margins
This 147-page book measures 6 Â½"x 9" and is printed on a soft, light yellowy paper, with wide margins and 142 footnotes running alongside and underneath and around Codrescu's treatise. The notes allude to his other books and amplify his ideas with allusions, anecdotes and facts. These range from asides on typewriters and the history of Spell-Check to his remark that, as he lies forever in his tomb, Lenin's head is stuffed with newspapers of his time.
For Codrescu, "life and writing are one" and he is agitated at what seems to be the unstoppable disappearance of the tangible, embodied acts of writing— and traces of the human beings who write— into near invisible electronic bits of binary code stored who knows where and under what laws or regulations and, increasingly, accessible through intermediaries with good will, ill will, profit or power as motivations.
But perhaps it always has been so. People write to be more than themselves and for a future that's shaped by writing (think of the U.S. Constitution). "The truth, however," Codrescu insists, "is that the Archives is the intrinsic reason for performing the act of writing, which is already an Archive by the time it leaves the hand."
Poetry as salvation
Poetry, especially, is the realm where intangible and transcendent meaning of language and writing resides. Poetry asserts its own ambiguity and otherness and calls on the imagination of readers to discover its revelations through words as song"“ hence its danger to authority.
The task"“ Codrescu ends on a affirmative note— is not to hope for either dystopian or happy endings, but to create new works, new forms and new narratives comprised of the unarchived, unarchivable and forms that are impossible to archive… in effect, poetry, as it always has been.
As an example, Codrescu recalls his stolen notebook— the unarchived and undigitized one, which he never wants to be found, urging that it and other poems become "hiding places for thieves, or they'll become blueprints for archival machines."
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What, When, Where
Bibliodeath: My Archives (With Life in Footnotes). Andrei Codrescu. Antibookclub, 2013. 168 pages; $25.00. www.antibookclub.com.
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