In The Object Stares Back (1996), James Elkins writes
In my living room there are two large bookcases, each one eight feet tall, and they have about five hundred books between them. If I step up to a shelf and look at the books one by one, I can remember something about each. As a historian once said, some stare at me reproachfully, grumbling that I have never read them. One may remind me vaguely of a time when I was interested in romantic novels. An old college text will elicit a pang of unhappiness about studying. Each book has its character, and even books I know very well also have this kind of wordless flavor. Now if I step back from the shelf and look quickly across both bookcases I speed up that same process a hundredfold. Impressions wash across my awareness. But each book still looks back in its own way, answering the rude brevity of my gaze, calling faintly to me out of the corner of my eye. At that speed many books remain wrapped in the shadows of my awareness–I know I have looked past them and I know they are there, but I refuse to call them to mind. (73-74)
I read this in the hallway of Rackham Hall yesterday where I sat for ten minutes–not staring back, ironically–as ENGL328 students filled out end-of-semester course evaluations. But what was on my mind as I read this was the workshop I was scheduled to lead at noon today for EMU’s Nelson Faculty Development Center, a workshop titled, “How to Curate a Digital Antilibrary: An Introduction to Google Reader.” The antilibrary comes from Taleb’s characterization of the unread portion in Umberto Eco’s personal collection of 3,000 books. Those unread items project felicitously some horizon of possibility. The antilibrary is not antithetical to the library; it is its premonition, its ghost from the future.
I can’t decide about the relationship between Taleb’s conception of “unread” and Elkins’ idea here that even those books that are technically unread (whatever that means) are well-enough known to grumble for their having been neglected. At first I thought, Elkins has no antilibrary. But that’s not quite right.
Instead, his books are always a little bit read: read through their titles, through an author’s or publisher’s reputation, through a book jacket, or even more fundamentally (as objects) through an assumed to be recognizable materiality. These are bound, shelved books, after all. Consequently, they never rightly, properly fit in the antilibrary, do they?
Elkins takes a hypothetical step back: “I know I have looked past them and I know they are there, but I refuse to call them to mind.” This refusal is a curious game, striking for its thin, wispy relationship to rapid cognition, or thin-slicing. The refusal is a sort of will to indeterminacy, to unknowing, to disassociation. And I guess that’s what I’m thinking about now, having read this, having talked earlier about digital antilibraries: the persistence of an antilibrary requires one part a refusal to look at what is already in the collection, one part embrace of the potentialities in the nearby-but-unknown, and another part thrill in expecting a future in which those materials-awaiting will still be there for taking up.