It's almost impossible to remember, as we update blogs and create work that can be seen simultaneously by everyone on the planet seconds after we create it, that once upon a time a thing existed only physically, and that thing had a limited lifespan and could be rare. That there could be only a few of something, and just having it could be a wonder.
I'm thinking now of John Lawson's book, A New Voyage to Carolina, in the presence of which I spent several hours the other day. In the North Carolina Collection of the Wilson Library of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill reposes an actual physical copy of that book, published in 1709, though even that requires explanation.
Lawson's story first came out as part of A New Collection of Voyages and Travels: With Historical Accounts of Discoveries and Conquests in All Parts of the World, a periodical printed by a consortium of London booksellers that came out in regular editions. Lawson's contribution was part of the May 1709 edition. In January 1710, perhaps because people began to recognize just how much there was to learn, the publication grew a new headline:
In any case, Lawson's work also came out as its own entire volume, also in 1709. I looked at both versions in the lovely Wilson Library rare books reading room. To save the books you get little foam pads to hold them from opening too wide; you get tiny weighted strings to hold the pages open so you don't paw at them too much; and if you want to, say, open a fold-out map, a librarian comes over and helps you, whispering conspiratorially the whole time, surrounded by busts and wooden shelves and beneath formal chandeliers and a balcony. Now that's how you treat a book, if you don't mind saying.
Holding Lawson's volume -- something he could have held himself, but that certainly his contemporaries did -- brought his journey to life in a way Google Books, for all its inestimable value, cannot. Until we find a way to share books online in smell-o-vision, until we can duplicate online the feeling your finger gets as it carefully traces a brittle, aging paper edge, physical reality still has a lot to brag about compared with the online version.
I try to keep that in mind as I prepare to -- on Oct. 12! -- venture, in Lawson's wake, into physical reality.