Memory Hole

How often do you read a book more than once? Do you ever not make it through a book in the first place? What happens to the books that are forgotten, still hanging around your bookshelf or cloud server (depending on your predilection)? Do you pass them on; lend them to people with no expectation of their safe return? Or do you leave them as is, a trophy of words conquered (or at least attempted) to gather dust and take up increasingly precious storage capacity (those megabytes add up) or box space every time you move? At what point do you finally chuck them out? The delete button is easy enough, but what do you do with those papery things?


The Spanish art collective Luzinterruptus recently blanketed Melbourne’s Federation Square with more than 10,000 unwanted books collected from the Salvation Army. Visitors were encouraged to taken as many books home as they liked at the end of the installation. On a smaller scale, many years ago an older colleague of mine decided to give away her entire library. As she filled a room with browning paperbacks and I was surprised to learn what exquisite taste she had, with a serious bent towards great Australian works. I still have the books I collected that day, though I confess that after more than eight years, I still haven’t read them all. The books simply moved shelves.

When we talk about publishing, we frequently imply its sense of permanence, especially in print. Words published are words that belong to the ages. Increasingly though, this looks more like a delusion of grandeur. According to best available estimates, 2.2 million new books are published each year. Australia contributes more than 8,000 titles to that ocean (though latest local figures date from 2004; want to guess what that number has done since then?). The online space is of course even more crowded. As Google’s Eric Schmidt famously noted in 2010, we now create as much information every two days as we did in the entirety of human history until 2003.

For new authors, that’s a lot of noise to break through, but even when a work finds its best audience, can it resonate and occupy a space in a reader’s memory before being washed away by the next book and the next book and the next? It seems to me, the only insurance against our books falling down a memory hole is great stories well told.

Literature versus Traffic in Melbourne: