In high school I discovered the techno thriller, the suspense novel in which a given population lies prey to an unseen, unknown enemy. Michael Crichton’s novels were the revelatory literature of my late teens as Agatha Christie’s cozies had been the catechism of my early adolescence. But Poirot’s little grey cells could take one only so far in discovering truth; the sustained suspense of The Andromeda Strain brought me into the heart of a dangerous crime world filled with forensic detectives, super villains with the power to wipe out entire civilizations, and gleaming laboratories, buried more deeply and securely than the Bat Cave, which held sophisticated equipment whose only downfall lay in the fallen nature of the minds which planned and programmed it.
I am uncertain whether the sudden arrival at the public library of a listing capability is to be hailed as an answer to prayer, or denounced as an invasion of privacy. I had always thought what a shame it was that since the advent of electronic catalogues there was no available record of one’s checkout items. To this day I possess a handwritten list of the Poirot novels and short story volumes, maintained through high school and college, a checklist verifying my having read every one. Such an artifact is rendered superfluous by the web site that affords a storehouse for my book lists. On the similar site, Goodreads, the challenge for me has been to Update my shelves in a timely manner, needing as one does to key in each book that am reading separately. Because I often return from the library with an armload of books, or download titles to Kindle, Overdrive, and iBooks, maintaining such a list has seemed an unwieldy chore or an inconvenience better saved for another day when I find leisure for it. But the new Salt Lake Public Library list feature allows me to add to my lists with a single click, then to designate said title “for later”, “completed”, or “in progress”.
Doubts weaken my faith, despite the convenience. The Beast (of Revelation) was a vast computer in Germany, we had learned one Sunday morning about the time I was reading Crichton’s Terminal Man. Would it take over the world? Solzhenitsyn’s accounts of torture in Soviet prison were mere shadows of what we believers might endure in coming years. There was a Big Brother and He would be watching you. All The President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor convinced me that indeed the CIA knew all about me and would not fail to see their good work to its completion. If I remember nothing else from my years at San Francisco State, one thing is etched in my brain: McGucken’s FBI sheet—with large portions of black marker obliterating the details that might reveal the identities of their informants. I have always felt the books one is most passionate about must be purchased in cash from a used store, where the transaction cannot be traced to me. I have always assumed G-men wanting to keep tabs on readers of our town could obtain my checkout record, even though such lists had been unavailable to patrons once the books were returned.
My wife is a novelist, so at times I entertain myself by imagining plots of the thrillers I will one day write. Like Hitchcock’s ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances, my hero will be singled out because his library record indicates that he fits the psychological profile of the person of interest in a case they are working on. An unusual interest in Oscar Wilde implicates him as a Neo-aesthetic with tendencies toward non-violent social activism. They suspect he has tried to obscure his real interests by checking out materials on Wagner and Wittgenstein, but they have his number. The game is afoot, a cross between The Firm and Les Miz. I may never actually write such a book, but the terror I envision is occasioned by the loss of privacy for which I myself can be blamed. The new gadget allows readers to sense we have control over the identity we project to our social network, integrated as it is with Twitter, Facebook, and email buttons. But this is a false sense of security. Could this be the red button we were all warned not to push?
Besides suspecting that we Citizens are abdicating a right to privacy, I have qualms about my book list that are entirely personal, not involving any of the marketing issues that might surround my decisions to post my current reading lists, such as automated book recommendations or note-sharing. I suppose it symbolizes a kind of pride, or boasting. After all, I still choose which titles to share, in the same way I carefully select which paperback to casually display as I am waiting for a movie. In another old Bible chronicle, you see, King David fell into some trouble when he began counting just how many soldiers he had: he should have just left it alone and not numbered his troops. But I might avoid the appearance of reading more books than I actually finish if there were more options to select. My real reading habits would have to reflect abandoned Pale Fire, the carelessly listened to and tossed aside recordings of Alan Cumming. Have I no musical taste? Have I no respect for a classic? Actually, I am impatient. If more books read like the start of early Michael Crichton, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in.
A number of objections may be raised against my disaffection for this new system. My great friend Susan and I share book lists and she uses them as a means of curating her collection and reviewing her books as a help in recalling what she has read and how she has liked it. I share my reading with her, assured that at times we will influence each other and hit upon mutually satisfying reads. I would almost be persuaded to cease my objections to the Goodreads and library lists if they could overlap and the library record become, with the flick of a checked box, displayed on my Goodreads page—the system we currently use for our exchange. My students use it to track and reflect their progress through various volumes and to share recommendations.
I doubt if the new gadgets signal the end of life as we know it. But I also have never taken the same pleasure in creating and managing a booklist as I did with those early Agatha Christie mysteries. Perhaps the books represent something to me, in that I first researched all the titles possible, then wrote them down, and one by one checked them off until every one was read. It was an accomplishment. A good list can mean a great deal. I think I just have to decide what my list is for. Do you too find yourself turning simple rituals into spiritual battles, the outcome of which may trumpet the approach of Armageddon?
Photo Credit attributed to : davidszondy.com