In the age of “peak book”

I seldom work in libraries, for all the obvious reasons: you can't smoke, eat or drink, while the proximity of many lithe young bodies in tense repose inevitably tends one's thoughts to the sexual. And then there are the books. Of course, when I was a young man, the books didn't bother me so much, while the sexualisation of libraries was more extreme. Back then, I laboured under the healthy delusion that, although I could not be as well read as Coleridge (who was said to be the last man to have read everything), I might yet read all that truly mattered.

Now, just as the possibility of joyous congress among the stacks retreats on hushed puppies, so the idea of all those unread books has become a screaming torment. Even the most innocuous of local libraries feels to me like Borges's library of Babel, with its infinite number of texts.

As for the British Library, where I do occasionally undertake some research, the very atmosphere seems charged with an awareness of the great mound of the unread that we all squat atop, as flies might write dissertations upon a dungheap.

When Gutenberg tore the first sheet off his press, at most 100 titles began to appear annually. As literacy and print expanded, this was retained, but après Coleridge came the dry and rustling deluge as the numbers of books increased exponentially. By 1950, a quarter of a million were published every year, while today a book is published somewhere in the world every 20 seconds (that's 1,576,800 per annum, in case you were wondering). Meanwhile, literacy in the so-called developed world steadily cedes mental territory to the pixellated onslaught.

Reader's block

In such a culture, is it not possible to argue that the relentless production of books is itself a form of insanity? That collectively we are like someone who acquires ever more titles purely in order to convince herself - or her friends - that she is on the point of reading them? After all, the vast majority of these books are not only unread but also unreadable. Deranged diet plans, miserable misery memoirs and novels with less novelty than a coprolite doubtless abound, but by far the biggest slice of the papery pie comprises doctoral dissertations that have received ISBNs purely so their authors can keep on reading other books and decoct them into books of their own.

And all this while the axe of public spending cuts whistles around the head of local library services, so that young and disadvantaged people who might actually want reading matter cannot find the wherewithal - mad, no? Still, some kind of sane perspective can be achieved by reflecting on this: Google's servers process a petabyte (one quadrillion bytes) of data every hour. Fifty petabytes is roughly equal to the entire written works of humankind up until now. Last year was also the first that the British publishing industry suffered a net decrease in sales, although not production.

Insane in the brain

The above leads me to suspect that we indeed may have passed that numinous - but for all that, real - point known as "peak book". Might this mean that the ever-expanding and ever-deranging gap between what is written and what is read may be beginning to narrow at last? Don't be ridiculous! The web has put paid to that - all those petabytes, all those pages! If the consciousness of unread books was bad enough, what about the consciousness of unread web pages?

It all puts me in mind of the Cha'an meditation illness: an incontinent recall of Buddhist texts that is the symptom of a Zen pupil's overstrained psyche, and which can only be rectified by his master hitting him on the head with a stick. Otherwise, the texts proliferate across his visual field, while the meaning of every word is instantly grasped by him. At first, there are just texts the pupil knows, but soon enough these are joined by others he has only heard of - yet these, too, are comprehended in their entirety.

There is worse to come, as flying from all angles wing still more texts that the pupil is compelled to include in his screaming wits - texts he has never heard of at all, texts he didn't know could exist, texts written by alien civilisations, texts doodled on the Etch a Sketch of God by archangels peaking on acid! No stick is big enough to beat this pupil - Humanity. So the maddening and delusory library expands, while the real and useful one is shut down.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas