Wednesday April 20th, 2011

“(Do mountains count as books?)”

The Los Angeles Review of Books is a web-based literary enterprise that is scheduled to fully launch later this year. For now, the site — led editorially by Tom Lutz, as well as Evan Kindley, Julie Cline, and Matthew Specktor, among others — is up and operating as a “preview review.” The LARB calls itself “the first major, full-service book review to launch in the 21st century.” Full service? With a boast like that, they better be ready to fill it up with regular unleaded.

I wish them the best of luck. With their list of contributing editors (which is longer than some short stories), they should have a lot to offer. (The site currently features a considerable list of forthcoming articles.)

One of the first three pieces up on the site is Ben Ehrenreich’s “The Death of the Book,” a smart and playful essay about a concern that has existed as long as the book. Or longer. Here’s a piece:

For the record, my own loyalties are uncomplicated. I adore few humans more than I love books. I make no promises, but I do not expect to purchase a Kindle or a Nook or any of their offspring. I hope to keep bringing home bound paper books until my shelves snap from their weight, until there is no room in my apartment for a bed or a couch or another human being, until the floorboards collapse and my eyes blur to dim. But the book, bless it, is not a simple thing.

Nor, as we know it, is it particularly venerable. All of our words for book refer, at root, to forms no longer recognizable as such: biblos being the Greek word for the pith of the papyrus stalk (on which texts in the Greco-Roman world were inscribed); libri being Latin for the inner bark of a tree, just as the Old English bóc and Old Norse bók referred to the beech tree. Likewise “tome” is from a Greek word for a cutting (of papyrus) and “volume” is from the Latin for a rolled-up thing — a scroll, which is the form most texts took until they were replaced by folded parchment codices. Prior to the late 13th century, when paper was first brought to Europe from China, the great works of Western civilization were recorded on the skins of animals. The Inca wrote by knotting strings. The ancient Chinese scrawled calligraphy on cliffs. (Do mountains count as books?) The printed, paper book, as we know it, dates only to the mid-fifteenth century, but those early Gutenberg exemplars were hardly something you’d curl up with on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The book as an affordable object of mass production — as something directly kin to the books that line our shelves — was not born until the 19th century, just in time for the early announcements of its death.