Who can forget the image of Proteus thrashing into multiple animal forms as he tries to throw off his interrogator? I’m actually not sure if I have this in my head because of some cheesy sword and sandal epic dubbed from the Italian, or because of the Odyssey itself, but it’s one of those mythological implants that just doesn’t go away. So, in search of the future, I descended into the Valley of the Gowanus to visit Proteus Gowanus. My friend C had alerted me to its existence, and when I checked out their website, I recognized the name of the woman who designed the site; we used to work together in the dotbomb era. And the exhibit is all about libraries. How could I miss this trifecta alignment?
Bracketing both sides of Union Street Bridge were Paulownia trees in full flower. The canal was at low tide, goopier than usual, an old tricycle visible in the glossy muck. You go down an alley around the corner from Union …surely the beginning of something good. And the place turns out to be a wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities. Now I know youngsters believe that all the world is on-line, and that Google, with the passion of Babel, yearns to make every book available digitally so all cyborgs sitting in their caves can see the shadows of paper upon their screens. And that the digerati likes to disdain paper as dead trees, conveniently ignoring that our electronic devices are laden with toxic material and that our gadgets are dripping with blood, c.f.coltan. But me, I like the object. I’ve made paper, and books, and set and printed moveable type. I love the physicality of old books, the details of marbled paper, the incised clothbound covers, the colophons, the notes on the type. I love the smell of them, that must of time. Obituaries of books have been heard for a generation now, but ask yourself, where are the 45s, magnetic tape, 5” disks, and floppies that once were all the wave of the future? Do we know how long do CDs and DVDs last? Can anybody out there play my Edison Blue Amberol Record ("Pussy Willow Waltzes" by the Imperial Marimba Band)? A few, to be sure, but damn few.
Not that everything in the Proteus is a book. Far from it. (I noted with some glee that they had a whole bee section; but of course!) The idea of the library is wider than that. This is in the air, isn't it? Check out the Prelinger Library.