Of the making of many books, there is no end. Ecclesiastes 12:12
This thing in front of me, this marvelous brain and its keyboard beneath my fingers, has changed everything. I don't have a smart watch, but if I did I could wander through a thousand libraries and never take my eyes off my wrist. Once upon a time, when I was writing devotions for kids, if I needed to know where the average sperm whale tipped the scales, I'd send my eight-year-old son two blocks down the road to the library, then give him a buck or two when he returned with the tonnage. He's forty now and long ago lost that job to google, who tells you in tenths of a second how much time has lapsed between question and your answer in a thousand websites.
Technology has made me and a gadzillion others into photographers, sort of. If you or some local monkey takes a million pictures on your Canon, one of those shots, nicely photo-shopped, may look at least something like an Ansel Adams. For the first time in history, the number of books published in 2009 (eight years ago already) topped a million, four times what it was just four years before in 2005. Say you own a bookstore--how on earth can you or anyone else keep up?
Last week I got rid of an entire box of books, books that, once upon a time, I probably wanted. Three times in the last five years I've tried my best to get rid of whole shelves of books--and have. Still, the sheer volume of volumes down here makes the basement look like a hoarder's den.
But nothing in my library(s) comes anywhere close to this behemoth. It's huge--eighteen inches wide, a foot tall. You don't hold this thing--not really. It's too big. It's coffee-table size, if your coffee table is a soccer field. It's big and it's beautiful.
There's a very good reason for its existence and its mammoth size. Back in 1900, the man whose portraits it celebrates set out on a photographic pilgrimage to capture images from what he thought to be a vanishing people--American Indians. Edward S. Curtis devoted his life--and his family, his fortune, his marriage--to putting faces and places on film, faces he thought endangered by acculturation and the ordinary passage of time.
What he envisioned was an immense folio of portraits of North American Indians, in twenty volumes, beautifully photographed and bound in a spectacular collection and sold for more than most Americans made in half a year. No one proposed a paperback or some kind of Wal-mart edition. Into those 20 mega-expensive volumes, Curtis placed about 800 prints, approximately one-third of the 2400 silver-gelatin photographs he took during his lifetime of travel among Native tribes.
Edward S. Curtis: Visions of the First Americans includes but a fraction of the photographs he left, but they're beautiful, and the book is a treasure. I spent a couple hours with it yesterday, on loan from the local museum, where it was recently donated by a friend who, like a ton of people my age, is down-sizing.
The museum isn't sure it's for them, despite its valued history and breathtaking photography. People don't come into a museum to page through a book, no matter how big or how beautiful.
Library? Nah. People don't go to libraries to page through a huge book of photographs either.
Still, this book has pages so thick they'd work for building materials. It's an immense wonder. By its size alone, I figured Visions of the First Americans was worth a fortune, even if we don't know quite what to do with it.
So I looked. I sat here at the keyboard and googled Visions of the First Americans.
Ten bucks. Seriously. New? Just twenty. I'm still breathless. Amazing.
But if you want to page through the Edward S. Curtis collection--a collection much, much bigger than what's here in this single volume, I know you can do it more easily on-line. Here, at the Library of Congress, or here, at Northwestern University's collection. You can sit all day long and look. at digitized originals. You can. Those libraries keep no hours either.
There all on line, every one of the Curtis portraits, and they don't require a separate library shelf. Look to your heart's content.
The internet delivers them far more quickly and completely.
Just not as beautifully. Ten bucks. I'm serious.
Without the Curtis photographs, the world would be a lesser place, but they're worth almost nothing. Amazing.