The Other Deep Web

Ashley and I went up to the California International Antiquarian Book Fair today. It was truly a humbling experience in many ways. While a large number of the cracked and creaking volumes in the fair were of little interest (there seemed to be an overabundance of antique fishing books for some reason), there were a few astounding gems.

Of particular interest were the original scientific volumes. A first edition copy of Newton’s “Opticks“. Treatises by Galileo, Copernicus, and Descartes. An original copy of Einstein’s publication introducing the theory of general relativity, and another introducing the photo-electric effect. A first edition of the King James Bible. A first edition copy of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (a limited edition bound in asbestos). But why do these books matter? We know the words, the ideas, and the illustrations. What’s left to captivate us? I pondered this while watching a woman nearly suffer an emotional implosion while examining some obscure volume of philosophy that obviously held some powerful sway over her.

I guess in some way, we all look to try to get closer to the original author of some book that meant something to us. To try to get inside them. Maybe if we can reach back in time far enough through these books, we think, we can actually touch their authors’ greatness (and maybe some of what they had will rub off on us). While it starts innocently enough – a first edition here, a copy signed by the author there, an original marked up copy of the manuscript, etc. – but sometimes it gets truly weird.

At some point today the obsessive nature of the antiquarian book trade became readily apparent when I found one vendor selling Robert Louis Stevenson’s matriculation card from the University of Edinburgh. It’s one thing to like the guy’s books, it’s entirely another to want to own the card attesting to his status as a university graduate. That’s kicking it up a notch. In another area, I found a copy of Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog” originally owned by Theodore Roosevelt, along with a personal letter from Roosevelt attesting to how much it meant to him. How ironic.

Internet geeks have been talking for years about the “deep web” – the dark matter of the Internet universe that remains hidden from the pervasive prying eyes of voyeur search engines. While the term is often applied to data curtained behind corporate firewalls, today the term took on a new meaning for me. Today, it referred to all the ancient “obsolete” knowledge trapped in ancient volumes that would never be visited by Googlebot, or scanned by Amazon. Today, it referred to the collective emotion of the human race for the books and authors they love. There’s no indexing that.