Dream of a Universal Bookstore

I recently visited the Harvard Book Store to catch a glimpse of its newly acquired Book Espresso Machine, the $100,000 apparatus that can print a fully bound, 300-page book in four minutes.

The machine’s unveiling had been the day before, but the shop maintained all the buzz and novelty of a miniature, latter-day Great Exposition. In the back of the shop, a crowd of about 15 onlookers pressed around an attendant performing a demonstration. A graduate student couple beamed at each other. Old men shook their heads and grinned.

The book machine is well worth a look: It actually comprises two machines. One resembles an industrial-sized copier, and the other reminds me of that baroque execution device from Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” A transparent casing surrounds the latter half, affording a view of the various gears, clamps, trays, and rollers in action.

The printing process is speedy and impressive. The copier rapidly spits out a thick stack of pages, which the machine then clamps, rotates, and binds with hot glue into a card-stock jacket. Two blades, regrettably obscured from view, thresh off the book’s edges until it is cut to size. Finally, the finished product is deposited, like a bottle of soda from a vending machine, into a compartment near the bottom. Apart from their unadorned covers, the books look and feel indistinguishable from those on the shelves.

To my surprise, only a bare few onlookers actually seemed interested in buying something made by the machine. The male graduate student ordered a Spanish-language book on aesthetic theory; I bought a Victorian novel. It felt warm in my hands—literally hot off the press. Most people, however, were content to “ooh” and “aah” and feel as if they had witnessed a bit of print history.

I’m undecided on whether this technology means very much for booksellers, but the tepidness I saw in the other patrons made me doubt that it does. Even if the digital inventory expands far beyond the stock of out-of-copyright titles that the machine currently prints, I have to wonder whose book ownership needs are so extensive and obscure that they cannot be met by Amazon.com or the local bookstore. One answer, of course, is academics and bookworms—real constituencies, to be sure, but ones whose pent-up demand, alas, seems unlikely to revolutionize the business.

For those academics and bookworms, however, what a coup this machine is! One can almost begin to imagine the fulfillment of that utopian dream held by book collectors since at least the 15th century: a comprehensive, universal library—a single place where nearly every surviving printed book in English can be accessed within minutes. Perhaps they will still cost, but they will be available, all of them, in print.

As soon as I envision this admittedly distant prospect, though, I can’t help but feel a measure of nostalgia, already, mixed with my exhilaration. Last summer, I spent a glorious week in Dublin at the National Library of Ireland, reading dusty volumes of 18th-century pamphlets for my thesis. In the world after Google Books has conquered all libraries and the Book Espresso Machine has delivered them all to bookstores around the country, will such trips even be necessary?

The Book Espresso Machine, Google Books, and the myriad other print digitization schemes now afoot carry the danger of turning research into something that can be conducted without ever leaving the compass of one’s local bookstore—or even one’s desk. Surely the heyday of the academic as an explorer, an adventurer, traveling to distant libraries in search of rare and exotic books, has already passed. But must technology wipe away all vestiges of that former side to the vocation?

Of course, no serious researcher can believe that these developments represent anything other than a boon for academic research. Digitized books save vast amounts of time. They assist those unable to pay for travel to faraway libraries. And their text-searchability makes possible scholarship that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

Yet I can’t help but feel reservations. The challenge of looking for an elusive book is one of the singular joys of scholarship for me, part of what rescues it from becoming a mere exercise in pedantry or reinterpretation. Even Harvard’s relatively sensible library system has supplied me with a few pleasurable scavenger hunts. Now a Google search and a glorified Xerox machine threaten to supersede that entire process.

Borges, in that haunting short story “The Library of Babel,” imagined the universal library as a dystopia, where “the shelves register every possible combination of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols,” where the availability of all possible books means the reliability of none, and where the librarians spend their days searching vainly for a master catalog which must, by logic, exist somewhere amid the annals of nonsense. I fear for the opposite: a world where finding the proper book is all too easy and simple.

Charlie E. Riggs ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.