Monday, August 31, 2015

OED in the dirt

Sir James Murray, author of OED
Future shock is not an occasional thing.  It’s become a daily event for me now.  Not a day goes by when I don’t have a little conversation in my head with myself of decades past.  The dialogue always starts the same way, “Do you believe it?  Did you ever think you would live long enough to see this?”

What set me off this morning was a sidewalk full of books.  Berkeley is a very literate place and ain’t nobody around who doesn’t love books.  You can find boxes of books laid out almost daily, just down the street somebody has come up with a delightful idea.  They’ve put a bookshelf out, decorated it, and labeled it “The Book Exchange.”  The idea is you should help yourself to any books you find, and you are encouraged to leave books in return.

The reason this works is that it’s increasingly difficult to sell your old books.  It’s even hard to give them away.  Libraries won’t take them.  There’s simply no place to put them.  There’s a big kerfluffle going on around the Berkeley public library because they tried recently to make space and give a whole bunch more books away than some Berkeleyites thought was proper for a library to do.  That battle rages on.  Meanwhile, you may find a used book store to hand your unwanted books off to, but even then, you need to be prepared for rejection when you show up books in hand.

The reason is no secret.  Here we are in the computer age.  Everything you might want to read is likely to be available online.  It may take some doing, but you’ll find it, eventually.  Some of it may cost you, but usually it’s not much.  Worth not having to use your shelf space to store it.

What prompted this reflection was the notice I read a while ago on my neighborhood chat line.  Somebody just up the street had decided to empty their attic of old books and laid them all out – hundreds of them, on what would be their lawn, if we in drought-cursed California still had lawns.  Mostly dirt.  Dirty dusty dirt.

There, amidst all the cook books and travel books and books on why one should not vote for Richard Nixon was a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  And right next to it, a complete multi-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Those are sets of books we would have given our eye teeth to own, once upon a time.  Sitting in the dirt.  Just splayed out like a tired old whore even fresh lipstick and a new coiffure can help anymore.  Such an ignominious end.

It wasn’t that long ago when I pooled resources with other faculty members in my department to get a hefty two-volume OED for the faculty library.  It cost a bundle, but we felt it was worth the sacrifice.  

That was then.  This is now.  I just stood there shaking my head and confusing my girls-on-a-leash, Miki and Bounce, and amusing the guy standing next to me.  Miki and Bounce because they no doubt smelled the attic dust and wondered why on earth I should want to be stopping there.  The guy next to me was a young man, late teens to early twenties.  He read my mind.  “It’s all on the internet now,” he said.  And we both moved on, leaving the complete Encyclopedia Britannica and the OED in the dirt.

As I sit here writing this, the little shit who sits on my shoulder and guilts me all the time is shouting in my ear, “Why are you doing your usual ranting instead of going over there with a big mail sack, scooping up those two sets of books and mailing them off to the public library in Tenkodo, Burkina Faso?  I'm sure they've got one.  Or maybe Mörön, Mongolia.  Someplace, anyplace, where people still read books and are not likely to have these things.  

I know.  Nowadays they are probably more likely to have the internet than to have a public library.

Serious future shock.

We’re not done with sending books to developing countries, of course.  Organizations like Books Outbound, Develop Africa, the African Library project and I'm sure there must be dozens more, are still actively engaged. 

I was able to come away with too many reasons for passing these books by.  Had to get the dogs home.  Had to get a haircut.  Didn’t have the time to get the mailbags.  Not sure I wanted to clean the dirt off and spend the money or the time to find a place that would take old OEDs and encyclopedias.  And, of course, the best reason – somebody else should do it – not me.  And still the brain kept churning them out.  Isn’t it a bit patronizing to think that out of date reference materials are what people need in rural Africa or Asia or Latin America?  Hell, what about rural anywhere?

The answer, I think, is no.  Not patronizing.  Practical.

Maybe next time I come across the OED in the dirt I won’t hesitate so long.  


Picture credit:  The photo of the original compiler of the OED, Sir James Murray, is from a 2009 Daily Mail article.  Murray took decades to compile millions of little pieces of paper into his dictionary.  The thought of him walking past and seeing those books in the dirt gives me a headache.

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