Hit and miss

The way I see it, the heart of our age has missed a beat. And that was not out of love, but out of haste.

Two thousand years ago, nearly no-one could afford a private library. People could amass a few scrolls, volumes, and scraps of important documents, but the number of books one could own pulled with the force of gravity towards 1. The behemoth-states of antiquity were pretty much the only ones with the resources to build, stock and maintain libraries.

Things began to change with the passage from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. From 500 to 1500 AD more and more people began to afford private libraries. Towards the end of the medieval period, wealthy literate individuals joined inclination to funds in order to build private libraries for themselves. Often, these people were authors themselves, so having a private library wasn’t all about status, but about scholarship and access to information. Besides, books have not always attracted high status. The aristocracy of the early medieval period ( roughly 500-1000 AD) wasn’t interested in books, and not because books were too scarce or too expensive even for them. In cultures where the written word wasn’t yet valued (it was often even despised), books were produced, circulated and consumed only by specialised institutions and individuals on the edge of mainstream culture, like religious houses and academically-minded figures, who were themselves most often associated with those institutions which fostered the development of the written word.

The private libraries of the first modernity (roughly from 1500 to just after the Second World War), proliferated thanks to a couple of progressive factors: 1. books came to be valued more and more in the context of an increasingly more literate culture; 2. the cost of producing a book and its selling price kept decreasing, making books ever more affordable. Nevertheless, before 1945, the private library didn’t yet achieve the level of democratisation of a, say, automobile or refrigerator in the West. Although more affordable, books were not taking homes by storm.

Yet, from the 1950s onward, they did. The period between the 50s to the 2000s was one in which more and more middle-class households in the West lined their walls with book-laden bookshelves. As the book was the only medium able to carry the written word, people rushed to buy books, which were, for the first time in the history of writing, within reach of most people in the West. Private libraries multiplied everywhere, including in many homes under the Iron Curtain.

The digital age and the advent of the second modernity slowed this process down dramatically. As books came under attack from the digital medium, their value dropped, and their appeal dwindled. Why stock books on home shelves when you can keep them on your computer? Or why even bother buying books to pass on to the next generation when everything is so widely and wildly available everywhere these days? Why would you hoard your gold coins when everything else is made of gold?

So we gave up on private libraries. And our hearts miss a beat. And our homes miss something.

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