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Book v. Mobile

The Bookmobile is back!

According to the Smithsonian, a new project by Tom Corwin is trying to bring the Bookmobile back into vogue. He’s driving it around N. America giving away books donated by famous writers who were themselves influenced by Bookmobiles when they were growing up. You can see footage from the trip here.

It’s an interesting story for a couple of reasons. The first is the way it taps into the deep seated book nostalgia in circulation today. The Smithsonian tellingly runs an image of a Bookmobile from the 1950s and not Corwin’s remodeled one (as seen here). But it also goes to the heart of one of the central ideologies of digital media, perhaps all media, that is based on “mobility.”

That the Bookmobile is able to be so meaningful is a sign of the way “mobility” lacks meaning when material doesn’t move through space. There is something far more meaningful about the book from the Bookmobile because it has to overcome friction — it requires a driver and a community. It is here, not there.

You might say I’m engaging in that old fallacy of thinking of books as “physical” and e-books as “virtual.” Files do move, and they can also move with us in our devices. But from the point of view of everyday experience, e-books don’t actually seem mobile, they just suddenly appear, just as they never leave somewhere else to get to you. They’re here, there, or everywhere, but never en route. There’s no difference where they are — no drivers, no commitment, no friction. The time and the care of the Bookmobile — this is what draws readers to the truck full of books. It’s another important reminder of the way the space of reading, and not just the medium of reading, matters to the meaning of the message.

Columbus, Ohio just unveiled the “digital” Bookmobile. While it may be a contradiction in terms, I like it. It not only recognizes the significance of space — that logging in on a bus is different from doing it somewhere else. It is also a timely reminder that no medium is universal. “Access” is never complete, no matter what the medium. Indeed, as I’ve argued elsewhere equality of access is shaping up to be one of the crucial issues coming to surround digital humanities in the future.

Maybe that’s the Bookmobile’s (and not the “mobile’s”) true meaning: a reminder that space matters and that we always live amongst communicative inequality.

As writer Ethan Canin remarks on the Bookmobile, “It’s still a damn good technology.” That’s because it tells us so much about ourselves.