Where Will the Books Go?

Distorte recently republished Where Will the Books Go?, an essay written in 1962 by John Rader Platt on the future of the book. The whole thing is a remarkable piece of foresight on how technology would transform reading by making a universal library available to everyone.

After performing some back of the envelop calculations on the number of books a person might read in a lifetime, Platt cautions us to exercise judgment in selecting texts from the coming universal library:

We begin, then, to wonder seriously: How much can an intelligent man know, and how much should he try to know, of previous or current human learning?


The trouble is that we were not brought up selecting. This is the wisdom of the wise men; not that they knew, but that they chose. It is a wisdom anyone can practice. We are harassed and hypnotized by print. But it is time to stop being passive about how we spend our minds. Are you not frightened by the thought of that long path of newsprint unrolling ahead of you down the years? Put some other kind of print beside your coffee cup. After you have read some of the newspaper, like an intelligent citizen, read something that touches your real interests more closely, like an intelligent human being.

There is no need to be all grim and serious about this, of course. We all have different jobs to do, and different intellectual hungers, and we all need different kinds of things to read at different times; from whodunits to history, from Pogo to the Perennial Philosophy. Often, nothing will restore our sanity like gales of laughter. Nevertheless, it is salutary to ask yourself when you next reach for a book, Is this one of the 8,000—or the 4000 or the 2,000—I really want to build into my life? It clarifies your choices wonderfully.

This same advice applies equally to the films one watches, the music to which one listens, and all the other experiences one chooses. Montaigne said “Live as long as you please, you will strike nothing off the time you will have to spend dead”, to which I’d add that given how brief is this burst of light in the eternal darkness one would be a fool to spend even a moment of it on rubbish when there are more treasures in the world than any one of us has time to enjoy.

This entry is part of my journal, published November 8, 2012, in New York City.