Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A brief history of the storage of books

Some time ago, a friend of mine, a priest, sent me an email complaining that his book situation was a "major disaster", with books piled on the floor and on every available surface. I wrote him a note saying, "I understand that 'shelves' were thought to be very useful to store books for quite a long time before they invented 'computers'."

Just recently I've been debating whether to make the long and complicated trip to Rome's Ikea, which I'm told is almost inaccessible by transit, but which I know has book cases for sale and, at least in other countries, delivers.

I have some of my books still in boxes (which same are serving as end tables for tea cups and my bedside reading lamp, clock and phone recharger) and some are stacked up on the floor gathering dustbunnies the size of tumbleweeds.

It all reminded me of a little tale I wrote once.

Once upon a time, some people who wore funny hats and had very good tans, thought they ought to figure out a way to make a living without working. There were three or four of them, (the chronicles are sketchy) and their names were Fred. (In those days there weren't very many people and they hadn't invented very many names. They all knew each other though, so it was all right.)

One of them, a bright fellow named Fred, decided that the best way to do this was to hit the peasants up for something he had just thought of that he called 'taxes.' His friends liked the idea but said, quite sensibly, that it would be difficult to collect these 'taxes' from the peasants without a system of enforcement, since in those days, pretty much everyone was a peasant, including Fred. "What we need is a 'class system'!" said Fred. This met with general agreement, but since 'class systems' hadn't been invented yet, no one quite knew how to go about making one.

After puzzling it out for a while, someone suggested that they form a city state. Everyone agreed that this was a great plan. So, being smart fellows, they started getting up very early every day, even before their mums had put the kettle on, and by thinking very hard, they made up a religion, laws, mathematics, astronomy, agriculture, engineering, a military, surnames, an economy, wheeled carts and beer. All of this was to be organized according to the 'class system'. When they had all this, they started building very tall buildings to make sure everyone for miles around knew that they were not merely having everyone on, but really meant it about inventing this great new thing.

They decided to call it 'civilization.'

Well, it really caught on. People liked it a lot and started to copy it and before you knew it, everywhere you looked, there were buildings and wheeled carts, and long surnames, and numbering systems and a couple of completely new things, 'trade' and the 'middle class'.

But then someone realized there was something that wasn't going to work out about all this. He knew, though would never admit, that their gods were not really very powerful. They were OK for bringing in a harvest, most of the time, and for winning wars - another new thing which people also liked quite a lot, (this was before tobacco)- but their gods were not going to make anyone immortal. Not even the priestly/mathematician/engineering class.

What to do? Well, you see the problem don't you? If the people who invented all this stuff were going to die some day, how would anyone in the future know how to fix the carts, or when to sacrifice the virgins, or keep up with the tax laws, or remember who they are supposed to be at war with? And, most importantly, who was going to brew the beer?

Everyone was quite worried about this, (except the peasants who suddenly found themselves quite busy) then one day, an especially clever chap whose name I can't remember, but was most likely Fred, and whose parents were potters, was fooling about with some clay and thought, "Gosh, I bet I can invent cuneiform!"

Well, this thing, 'cuneiform' caught on really well. Some people even liked it more than beer and war and they decided to become a new thing: 'scholars.'

After all this, everyone was really happy. Especially the scholars who really felt that all the hard thinking had paid off since they now had a really great way of making a living without working. (Of course, after a while, people started thinking that calling it 'cuneiform' was a bit of a mouthful, so it was shortened to 'journalism'.)

Now everyone was having a wonderful time. Peasants were being hit up for lots of taxes, and new ways of making a living without working were being invented all the time. Soon, someone decided to invent lawyers, and university professors, politicians, accountants, liturgists and pastoral counsellors. Everything was just great!

The only trouble with all this was that there were now so many cuneiform tablets around that they were blocking the drains and spoiling the scholars' gardens and making a mess all over. So a bright young scholar (whose name was certainly not Fred, since people were much more sophisticated now,) decided to go about collecting them all in what he called a 'library.' For this new thing, the same bright young guy made these very useful contraptions, a bit like the scaffolding that was used to build the buildings, except a bit smaller.

He decided to call them 'shelves.' And he put his books on them and spent many happy years organizing and re-organizing the books on the shelves. He called this 'work,' but really just to please his mother who thought he ought to have joined the army.