(The New) How it Works, or, books and obsolescence

February 26th, 2014, 11am

I am cleaning out my bookshelves. I really need to take a hard look at this sort of situation. Why, exactly, do I need this nine inch stack of books, an incomplete encyclopedia of technology, circa 1987? The books appear to have been produced for an adolescent audience; it’s the sort of thing a middle school student would have used to write a report about tin, tires, toilets, toothpaste, tornados. Or perhaps space weapons, xerography, magnetic tape?

The illustrations and photography are incredible though; perhaps I am reading too much into these books, but to me they are a sort of document of American technological hubris at the twilight of the Cold War.

I’d bought the books about eight years ago from a vendor on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village. Most of the booksellers there are men living marginally between half way houses and homeless shelters. They find their stock in the garbage or are given unwanted books by people in the neighborhood.1

The bookseller I’d bought this encyclopedia from was once a fixture at Father Demo Square.2 When not selling, he’d pack up his inventory into plastic USPS mail buckets, wrap them up with a blue tarp and then lash everything to the top of a pay phone bank. When I was browsing these encyclopedias, intending to buy one or two volumes, he told me he’d give me a deal if I took them all explaining, “Cause man, it’s gonna rain and I don’t want to move that shit around another night.”

That particular bookseller and his pay phones are now both long vanished from 6th Avenue.

  1. These men’s stories are well documented by sociologist Mitchell Duneier in his book, The Sidewalk

  2. Though called a “square” this three sided park fails to meet the geometric definition. A friend once commented while walking by, “Poor Father Demo. They promised him a square but all he got was a triangle.” 

Christine, So-Shan, Adrian, Philippe and 3 others said thanks.

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Nelson Harst

Rare book dealer, medium artist. @nelsonharst

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