Friday, November 10, 2006

The Douglas Coupland Experiment

New York Times Select was free this week and I found this little ditty by author Douglas Coupland. Recycling? The state of publishing? Chewing up your own work to make a wasp nest? Why the hell not?

Time Capsules
by Douglas Coupland

I guess my big issue with the book world is that only rarely does anybody address the physicality of books, as if to do so is somehow an insult to "words," which is kind of corny, and seems almost willfully self-blinding. The extreme is in France, where most covers are blank with just the title and author's name, which is actually not a bad idea, like school uniforms, but then what next - all books set in the same font at the same size? A war between the pro italics and the anti italics camp? I think you can go too far.

In 1996 there was a global paper shortage, and even Rupert Murdoch had to fly to Finland to ensure paper supplies for his publishing divisions. In second-hand book stores you can sometimes recognize the 1996 and 1997 books because they’ve turned yellow from the high acid content of the paper.

Thinking about this yellowness got me to thinking about pulp which got me to thinking about how precious we are about books. Books are central to the transmission of culture from one generation to the next. At least for now. Smart people have argued that we're going to look back on paper (and the book) as intermediate technologies, stops on the road to the all-digital universe. This seems wacky right now, but in 1,000 years it won’t seem wacky at all. One way or another, books will cease to exist. They'll either be supplanted or humanity will become extinct or - well, whatever scenario you envisage.

So back to pulp. Back to paper. My cousin in Ontario is an entomologist, and so I think about insects more than I might think about them otherwise. I got to thinking about how wasps and hornets make paper, too, and paper is, in its own way, just as vital to the survival of their species as it is for us. What if you could trick wasps into using human paper to make their own paper? What if you took a stack of Finnegan’s Wakes and pulped them with hot water and corn syrup and left the whole thing in a pasture and let wasps come and gather the cellulose to make nests? What if you added pigment to the chopped up paper, and tricked the wasps into making nests in designer pastel shades — in candy stripes or tie-dyed patterns?

I had lofty plans to try this but geography and scheduling prevented it — for the time being. We simply don’t have many wasps or hornets where I live in Vancouver. But in the meantime I did a few things. I began looking for nests, found exactly one, and then put an ad in the local shopper paper reading, "Wasp and hornet nests required for science project. Will pay $10 apiece." (BTW, one lesson I've learned in life is that there’s very little you can solicit to buy in a shopper paper that can't quickly be explained by saying it's needed for an art or science project.) I was able to buy three dinky little nests this way, so I then visited (where else?) eBay, where I was able to buy some huge nests for $20, mostly from Texas and Florida.
Nests are beautiful objects — the inner combs in Koolhaasian layers, the striations of pulp that resemble avant garde Japanese fabrics. You can easily meditate on one for hours. (BTW, here's another thing about nests: they can really stink after being in a shipping box for two weeks. Each day we learn something new.)

So after my nest meditations I took copies of my own novels and began pulping them myself, chew by chew, a slow, laborious process. Have you ever chewed a book? I doubt it. The first thing you need to know is that doing so really trashes your saliva ducts, and it takes about a week to get through one average-size book. The second thing to remember is to drink lots of water and spit regularly or your teeth will turn gray. Usually I'd chew while watching "Law & Order." (I'm an addict.)

To look at my own complete wasp nests raises odd issues in my head and, I hope, in the minds of observers. Is our bunkered mentality about the sanctity of books more genetic than cultural? Are we no different than wasps defending against intruders when we force students to read Henry James or Nadine Gordimer? What would wasps make of books? How do wasps think of their role within evolutionary time? Do wasps have any sense of culture? Why does it feel so strange to see a book removed from our own sense of history and culture and inserted into a non-cultural slot where art or music or any other art form don't exist?

This past month has been a pleasure. It's helped me clarify in my mind my experience with society and how books have shaped it. It's made me clearer about my call to anyone involved in teaching or within institutions to try to broaden their thinking about what books are or can be. Since 1991 I've witnessed the triumph of the superstore, the near death of the independent bookseller, the rise of Amazon, the rise of the Internet, the comings and goings of the e-book and the rise of the P.D.A. Books are not under siege, but they are evolving and mutating. The more this process disturbs you, the more necessary it might be to try and engage with these changes. Right or wrong, they are inevitable, and the choice for anybody is whether they want to be able to live fully within the future, or whether they want to become a recluse and vanish into the past. The only way to go is forward. It's all there is.