Everything in its place

Who didn't groan at the last scene in the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? The holy ark of the Bible stuffed in a nondescript crate and stored in a Pentagon-size warehouse among thousands of similar looking crates. Never to be found.

Though not dealing with a biblical artifact, Marjorie Coeyman's story (at right) on how and why booksellers are consolidating and modernizing their massive book-distribution centers is a cyber-variation on the theme "everything in its place."

We all know what a book looks like, feels like. We've all placed a book on a shelf. We've all not been able to find the book we wanted because we couldn't remember where we had placed it.

There are billions of books printed each year. Distribution, on the surface a rather tedious subject, is hot in publishing right now. As publishers and booksellers look for every cost-effective way to control prices in the highly competitive bookselling world, centralizing the storage and distribution of books - the way they are ordered, searched, delivered - has become a computerized art form.

One way to rescue this stupendous accomplishment from the mundane is to imagine yourself illiterate, from a culture that has no books.

The spatial organization represented by the printed page staggers the nonliterate imagination: that somehow on page 73, line 12, five words in from the left, the same word on every similar book published would be identical.

These delivery systems for new books stagger my sense of order.

Comments or questions? Write to Ideas editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail Ideas@csps.com

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