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Posts Tagged ‘books’

The art of book vandalism

In history, reblog on July 23, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Many centuries ago in China, shortly before the construction of the Great Wall, Emperor Qin commanded that all books must be destroyed. The only ones excluded were useful manuscripts, like books on astronomy and agriculture. Jorge L. Borges wrote that in order for the leader to truly establish himself as the first emperor of the unified kingdoms of China, he must first erase history. The emperor prevented the forces that shattered this unity, in turn hastening the construction of the structure. For imaginative purposes, one could think of the Wall as being made of books instead of bricks, since the burning of books was totally in conjunction with the project.

Franz Kafka’s The Great Wall of China, a most exemplary piece showing the so-called “Kafkaesque process of non-arrival” (see John Updike’s introduction to Franz Kafka: the Complete Short Stories), speculates how the Chinese citizens were socialized into the project by having the entire educational system revolve around the notion of “building”. The most important skills were related to constructing something indestructible, in the masonic sense of the word.

(There is a legend that Emperor Qin ordered some 500 Confucian scholars to be buried alive, in response to some illustrious people who opposed his tyrannical ways.)

Borges, the librarian of the world, pursued the idea that books constitute the substance of the universe in The Library of Babel. That was the extent of his bibliophilia. This fictional essay is the first Borgesian piece that I ever loved. What was most astonishing is how he calls attention to the physical constitution of the book rather than the text. For him, even the pages and the binding are sublime.

Today, contemporary artists have found a lot of uses from the physical constitution of books. The pictures are from OffBeatEarth:

Below are promotional images for Anagram Bookshop in Prague, by Kaspen.


How to read your own books

In academia, popular economics on June 3, 2009 at 5:02 pm

You love buying books, but once the titles are in your shelf, you just kind of stare at them and read books you do not own.

It makes sense. Books you lend are transient, while books you own are permanent. You just want to maximize limited privileges (library, friends, anyone?). That’s why a criterion I use in buying a book is that I shouldn’t want to read it right away. But ten years have passed and I still have dusty Austen, yellowing Twain and crispy Dickens, untouched like wrinkled virgins. How many of us are guilty of this cognitive bias?

Perhaps you should turn to economics. It’s time to get over what Richard Thaler calls the endowment effect, which makes us value the things we own more than what they were worth when we did not own them.

Thomas Schelling, whose work on conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis won him the 2005 Nobel Prize, proposes an art of self-management he calls egonomics. He says each individual has a kind of split personality — for instance, one part wants to read the books in the shelves, while the other wants to play a simulation game instead.

You can force a cooperation between two conflicting parties through precommitment, which is a strategy that Schelling recommended in nation-state wars. The idea is for you to cut off your options to retreat or give up, hence making your threat credible. The credibility of the threat will deter the conflict, and the end result is avoidance of war (“you go to war to prevent it”).

Precommitment can cure the endowment effect. Simply threaten yourself to let go of your books, and see if you still won’t read them. The only catch is that the threat must be credible. Leave no option of retreating.

I did this by auctioning my books on eBay, where there’s a constant threat that a book will be sold. When someone bids for a book, I quickly pick it up from my shelf and read it before finally shipping it to the customer. I would feel sorry for myself if I did not read the books before letting them go.