Winter 2001

Captain Future


Sometimes these days, when a shipment of books arrives at the door (“I ordered these? No waaaaay. Oh. Now I remember.”) I think of those goofily rivalrous articles in science magazines from just a short while ago: is the universe boundaried? Yes, and it eventually collapses. No, and it will expand forever.

Cosmologists seem to have wandered on to even more exquisite concerns (“dark matter” is old stuff now, and appears to have retreated along with the jitterbug and dropsy), but those furious debates in which the universe was alternately squeezed in and then pulled out, like an accordion, are dearly missed.

And I wish the universe better luck than Planet Albert currently has in its frantic attempts to grow accommodatingly for its population. There’s no room for expansion here, and each new book only sorely contracts the space that remains.

If scarcity determines value, some few square inches of bookshelf in my typing room could vie as primo real estate with the White House lawn or Jennifer Lopez’s honeymoon suite. There are days when it looks as if one more vintage paperback (where can my near-mint, luridly babealicious Dante’s Inferno go?) will fill the only vacancy left, and any book after that will need to be strapped to my Nissan’s fender.

There are many books in the last few years — it seems to me more than ever — that celebrate just such bibliophilic sick pleasures as mine. Books on squirreled-away manuscripts of the early Church fathers, books on steamy erotica, books about loving books, and books about book-lovers loving other book-lovers…everything’s represented, all of the trials and triumphs, down to the last exquisitely deckled edge of the last breath-takingly marbled page; there’s even an engineering history out now of library shelving and, though it isn’t Survivor or Baywatch, it has its moments.

Any browse through a bookstore will easily turn up further examples. Often the cover art is an antique engraving or woodcut, or a photograph of spines of what are clearly old (used / rare / gilt-decorated) editions. You might think that it makes me happy — this sudden flurry of praise for the book. But the essence of a eulogy is also praise, and I’m afraid that’s what the flurry is all about: swan songs from an industry that’s e-booking its own product into oblivion.

All of those Palm Pilots, waving goodbye. The week the old card catalogue here at Wichita State was slated to be trucked to the dump — that dear wooden structure as deeply dyed in the passions of urgent human use as a crucifix or a bordello bed — I could swear I heard the spirit of each of its drawers give out a phantasmal keen of farewell. (And, not surprisingly, there’s a book now that pays tribute to the history of card catalogues.)

It always happens, this sudden and last-minute fascinated focus on what’s disappearing. Endangered animals; quilting bees; old-time burlesque; the pinball machine…they all have their books, from the days of their sun’s setting. And now the book on the book (I mean, of course, the book on the real-deal paper, printed, page-turnable thing) is bringing that list to its close. A celebration of the book? — well, yes, it’s that. But it’s also a mourning. A kaddish industry.

Obviously I hope I’m wrong. But, hey — when was the last time that happened? And a lot — a lot — of money and fear and greed and techno-expertise is betting on the silicon chip and the screen. And, face it: primacies dwindle away.

The future needs to eat the present. “Sometimes these days, when a shipment of books arrives…,” is how this essay began — but a “ship” is no part of my orders’ delivery (nor do we “disembark” from a barque these days), any more than the flashing digital watches that my students wear move “clockwise.”

I think it’s my job to keep this seminal change from happening too swiftly. The trip can’t be stopped, but there’s honor in occasionally applying the brakes. I think it’s my job to lovingly steward a sanctuary for books. They’re crammed; but still, at least they’re here. And if you give lip service to the love of books? — you’re deputized; it’s your job too. If this might be the age of the book’s demise…well, demisery loves company. As Elton John says, “It’s lonely out in space.”

And speaking of rocket men…. In the early 1940s the pulp sci-fi adventure magazine Captain Future had its loyal fans. The eponymous space-zooming hero did blast out to the universe’s expanding rim, as if his superscience had conquered infinity itself.

No Martian outlaw was safe from his steely gaze. In the Winter 1944 issue, one reader wrote in: “I have an invalid father and an ailing mother to care for and it’s up to me to look after everything besides performing heavy manual labor on my railroad job. Without Captain Future, my life would be dreary, gloomy and lonely indeed.”

But that letter appeared in the final issue. Not too long after, the pulps all were dead. We had entered a different future.


Captain Future

Book-lover Albert Goldbarth, WSU distinguished professor of English, examines the current state of bound, printed pages — and their future.