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Books on Sand
By STEEN BILLE LARSEN, THE ROYAL LIBRARY, COPENHAGEN
Books and sand – sand and books. When I think about sand, I can feel hot sand between my toes on a lovely summer’s day on the beach, or I conjure up creaking sand under my walking boots on a cold winter’s day where the frozen foundation makes it much easier to wander along the coast. My sand is from the coast of North Zealand, on Hornbæk Beach, where I roamed summer and winter years ago. The coast is full of sand dunes – created by the wind and that is why they wander. 200 years ago they were threatening the farmland and large plantations were planted to stop the dunes wandering further into the countryside. The area therefore has a character of its own with a mixture of dunes and conifer plantations which in certain places block out the beach.
View from the coast of North Zealand, Hornbæk BeachSand is time and movement. Time we know from the hourglass. The sand running in a steady stream through the glass, from the upper glass to the lower one. With the naked eye one can see time running out. Sand is one of the most basic materials. It is created over millions of years by wind, weather and water in nature’s large grinder, pulverising rocks into the finest material. Sand is also movement. Sand comes from the tops of the mountains and has since been transported across vast distances through rivers and on sea currents. Grains of sand are crushed and sorted. The coarser ones stay and the finer ones move on. Depending on where you are in the world, the sand takes on various hues of colour. In Denmark the sand is white, but it is never the same sand that one encounters. In Denmark the sand is continuously on the move, and the coasts change despite man’s enormous investments. At some Danish coasts the sea every year claims its victims in the shape of coast that crashes into the sea. On old maps one can see roads, houses and coasts that no longer exist because the sea has claimed its right. The sand from these coasts does not stay put. It is transported to other stretches of coast where new land is built. The law dictates who owns this new land.
Books are time and movement. The book is basically time-limited, but timeless when being used. The book – the codex form – gained a footing around year 400 A.D. and is today known as the manuscript. The printed book was invented one thousand years later. Each book is written into its own time in order to bring a message. Books are written from the height of the intellect and are the result of a process. The first part is the thought process. The second part is the production of the book, whether in terms of the scriptorias’ planning of the vast number of ox hides which had to be used to make parchment and later the manuscript, or one thinks in terms of the printer’s logistic planning in the age of pre-industrialism, where lead type, paper and printed sheets were to come together in the final result at the bookbinder’s. The third part of the process is often the most important to the creator, that is – the distribution of the book. The book only really makes sense when it begins to move, when like the sand it starts moving along the rivers of distribution channels and sea currents onto the markets – to like-minded souls or the opposite. The purpose of books may be to consolidate the existing scheme of things and the accepted images of the world. The purpose of books may also be to challenge, criticise or undermine the established order.
The undesired movement of the sand, man tries to safeguard against. The undesired movement of the book is something that throughout time a great deal of effort has been invested in preventing. Stopping the book before its multiplication is in many social, political and religious contexts a primitive, however in the first instance, effective way to curb the dissemination of unwanted thoughts. But ”opinion control” has in fact never been universal, so seen from the angle of the opinion-controlling powers censorship has the disadvantage that thoughts which are prohibited in one place, might be allowed and even legal somewhere else. The thoughts are – like the sand – build up in new places. Censorship, therefore, right up until our days have been combined with the ban on certain books, supplemented with confiscation and control of who were allowed to read the books. In a modern, democratic society where opinion-controlling circles cannot induce the state to persecute people of a different persuasion, one chooses instead to threaten the lives of authors as a means to force them into silence. The efforts to prevent the unwanted movement of books are exploring new avenues.
Most books in our western world are available via bookshops and libraries. They are a great pleasure to a great many people. At Christmas 2004 more books were given as presents in Denmark than ever before. As opposed to many other goods, the book is not used up and devoured, because it has been used. It can be read again, and it can be read by others. The pleasure of giving a book increases when that pleasure can be shared with others. Often the greatest joy is to give a book to somebody else. The best and most valued books are passed around, you lend them, you give them as a present, you sell them to an antiquarian bookshop, so that yet more people may enjoy them. This timelessness is the infinite strength of the printed book. The most valued and rare books – the cult books – can be difficult to get just 10 years after they have been published. The global market place of the Internet has made it easier for buyer and seller of second-hand books to meet, but it can still be difficult to obtain a rare book, which went out of print 1-2 years after publication.
Quartz is an important element of sand. Quartz and other silicate minerals make up about 95% of the earth's crust and have been used since antiquity, i.a. for the production of glass and ceramics. Medieval alchemists were very interested in the properties of the soil and found therein an explanation for the production of glass. Quartz has now been classified as element no. 14, Silicon. Element no. 14 has lent its name to Silicon Valley which more than any other geographical spot is associated with modern electronics. The alchemists’ search for the characteristics of the soil has been converted into modern science with the exploitation of the fact that silicon can conduct electric current and that exposed to sunlight silicon can be used to produce an electric current. Integrated circuits (chips), diodes, photo cells and solar cells are based on silicon. The exploitation of silicon has been essential in the development that has made it possible for every household to own a PC, mobile phone or other electronic equipment.
With the electronic book, sand and books have thus gained yet another meaning. The quartz that is used in chips has been produced through industrial processes and consequently cannot be felt between your toes on a beach. But quartz – sand – is part of the basis for the electronic book having obtained practical use.
Producers of the electronic book are, however, their own worst enemy. The physical book one buys once and for all. As I have said, it won’t be used up by being used. It can be read again and again and it can be shared with others. Not so with the electronic book. In short-sighted desperation at not being able to foresee the economic consequences of the new technology, the producers of electronic books have introduced unreasonable limitations in order to prevent the electronic book from being used several times and by different users. That is the equivalent of having to burn a page in a physical book every time one turns a page, so that the publishers could sell a new copy if one should feel like reading the book again. Books burn at Fahrenheit 451. The owners of physical books are luckily not obliged to burn their books after reading them. Narrow economic considerations have resulted in the electronic book so far not being used in an optimal way.
The obstacles for free usage of the electronic book are not technical, but are due to legislation and regulation. This brings me back to my beach and my sand. Thanks to far-sighted legislation there is free access to all beaches in Denmark. Denmark has 7,000 km of coastline, where property-owners’ right to blocking off private beaches has been repealed. There must be free passage. Everyone has the right to walk along the sand on the beach. My beach, Hornbæk Beach, has even got the dunes.
If there were fences and barriers I would not be able to wander freely among those dunes or along the beach and enjoy the interplay between land and sea. One day soon a progressive publisher is going to find a formula that sets free the electronic thought, while at the same time securing a good income. The rest of the publishing world will be left behind, clinging to a retrospective copyright legislation.
Do I walk along the beach then, book in hand, find a vantage point and sit down to read? No. Reading requires concentration. Nature distracts and the sea is forever changing and attracts attention. From my vantage point in the dunes I can follow freighters from nations all over the world on their way to and from the Baltic Sea with their cargo of timber, crude oil or whatever else is produced in Finland, Russia and Poland. No doubt among the many ships there are some that carry paper from the Finnish paper mills. Having been unloaded, the paper is transported to printers, where a 550 year-old process once again guarantees that typography, paper and printed sheets turn into the magic information-carrying product, the book. There is no indication at all that less is being printed because of electronic books, the Internet etc. The book maintains its strength because of its timelessness and the fact that it can pass unchecked from hand to hand. Thus I expect that many ships loaded with paper will still be detectable from my vantage point, my sand.
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