Cosmos and Dithering Over Book Donating

Cosmos - Carl Sagan

At the moment the stacks of my books that I'm going to donate to our nearby library cover our small loveseat, and a chunk of those are definitely going away. But the problem is that I get all mushy over books. And since these are the heaviest and most expensive parts of any move, it'd be better if I could kill off some of those emotional ties to the paper and only hang on to those that are really vital.


Back in the 1980s I watched all of Carl Sagan's television series of Cosmos on PBS and loved it. This was also back in the pre-VCR period when you had to watch things right then because there was no way to rewatch anything unless PBS re-ran it. So for Christmas my parents gave me the hardcover book of Cosmos, which I loved. I have to admit I didn't read it cover to cover, just the parts that I'd liked most in the series. It's been something I've been meaning to reread for ages. I really feel I owe Sagan for helping me through AP Biology in high school and then helping me in the science test freshman year in college (short version: distribution requirement) - all aided with memories of Cosmos. (And a biology teacher who played the video of Cosmos on DNA in class.)


So why is it in the Donate pile? Well, neither of my parents wrote in it before gifting it (fewer people do that I notice) - which would definitely mean I'd have to keep it. And now I can tell that the binding isn't holding up well, so it's showing signs of Not Holding Up Well. I put it in the Donate pile, then moved it to the Maybe Not pile to dither about it. In the end I'll probably give up multiple other hardback books to the donate pile and keep it. Because if the pages get loose that's actually a reason to take pages out and maybe frame a few!


I still plan to get Cosmos as an ebook, because somehow Sagan's work seems fun to have in a cloud I can always access. I sort of think he'd find that a new adventure in methods of reading, just as much as he seemed to enjoy the history of the book as a means of learning.


....Ok I had to pause there, and I picked up the book and looked inside....nope, I am keeping it! I got all nostalgic when it fell open to the chapter titled One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue and remember how Sagan pronounced fugue.


I know it's been quoted oodles, but I figure, since I'm reading this bit now (the index is really good), I'll quote from chapter 11, The Persistence of Memory. The thing about the quotes you'll read is that you'll not realize that the context of the Sagan quotes on books here tie in to the concept of information found in our genes, our own internal library. Again, this is the sort of thing that stuck with me to help me out in future classes:


p. 279-282: "...When our genes could not store all the information necessary for survival, we slowly invented brains. But then the time came, perhaps ten thousand years ago, when we needed to know more than could conveniently be contained in brains. So we learned to stockpile enormous quantities of information outside our bodies. We are the only species on the planet, so far as we know, to have invented a communal memory stored neither in our genes nor in our brains. The warehouse of that memory is called the library.


...More recently, books, especially paperbacks, have been printed in massive and inexpensive editions. For the price of a modest meal you can ponder the decline and fall of Roman Empire, the origin of the species, the interpretation of dreams, the nature of things. Books are like seeds. They can lie dormant for centuries and then flower in the most unpromising soil.


The great libraries of the world contain millions of volumes, the equivalent of about [10 to the 14th power] bits of information in words, and perhaps [10 to the 15th] bits in pictures. This is ten thousand times more information than in our genes, and about ten times more than in our brains. If I finish a book a week, I will read only a few thousand books in my lifetime, about a tenth of a percent of the contents of the greatest libraries of our time. The trick is to know which books to read. The information in books is not pre-programmed at birth but constantly changed, amended by events, adapted to the world. It is now twenty-three centuries since the founding of the Alexandrian Library. If there were no books, no written records, think how prodigious a time twenty-three centuries would be. ...If information could be passed on merely by word of mouth, how little we should know of our past, how slow would be our progress! Everything would depend on what ancient findings we had accidentally been told about, and how accurate the account was. Past information might be revered, but in successive retellings it would become progressively more muddled and eventually lost. Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. Public libraries depend on voluntary contributions. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries."

Sorry, couldn't manage the formatting of -to the nth power.


Anyway, I read that quote (several pages if I were to copy it all out) and can't help but think that Sagan would have enjoyed the progression of paper books into ebooks. And the fact that ebooks are causing lots of us to dig around in much of the old, pre-1900 books that are now free and finding interesting things. I'm also going to ignore the fact that many libraries are finding funding to be a struggle these days, and refuse to get depressed about that.


However I am now going to hug this book and keep it. Besides, I definitely don't need four copies of statistics textbooks, even if I someday do need to run an analysis of variables again some day (please no, I'm just joking, I so do not want to mess with ANOVAs again!).


I've also decided that this is as much a review of the book as I'll ever get around to, and should be incentive enough to bibliophiles to at least check out chapter 11. All the chapters in the book are easily stand alone essays. And there's lots of pictures, all of which have descriptive and sometimes long captions. I still plan to get the ebook though!

With those weighty words of books and scholarship I should probably add that if I read any more more this afternoon it'll be to finish off  one of the two cheesy books on film and television that I'm reading. Because sometimes that's the sort of voyage my brain needs to take.