Creation and innovation are driving forces in our society and consequently we are, for the most part focused squarely upon the new. Jane Smiley wrote in her forward to a novel resurrected from the ‘out of print’ back catalog, “Most novelists, no matter how popular, fall into obscurity.” The same could be said for musical works as well. I’ve spent countless hours digging for treasures among the stacks of long out of print records.
The promise of digital formats is that nothing need go out of print ever again. Of course that reality is a fair ways off at this point but it’s an amazing goal to strive for.
This New Yorker article profiles Brad Bigelow, a blogger and self-appointed custodian of obscurity. For much of his career, he worked as an I.T. adviser for the United States Air Force. At his home, in Brussels, Belgium, he spends nights and weekends scouring old books and magazines for writers worthy of resurrection.
Music has a legion of DJs and hobbyists to tend the oddities and obscurities of the genres and sub-genres of generations past. Books have a much more resilient form factor in that things printed on paper and stored properly will last quite a bit longer. Perhaps that is why there isn’t a sense of urgency around saving older works. Time plays into the differences as well. Many songs are less than five minutes so one can listen to quite a few songs in an hour whereas reading for an hour, one might only be part-way through the first part of a novel.
“It can just be a series of almost random things that can make the difference between something being remembered or something being forgotten,” Bigelow told me recently. On his blog, Neglected Books, he has written posts about roughly seven hundred books—impressive numbers for a hobbyist, though they’re modest next to the thousands of books we forget each year. “It’s one little step against entropy,” he said. “Against the breakdown of everything into chaos.”