In the buzz over e-books and media, we are staking the preservation of knowledge on a medium more fragile and troublesome than paper. The hawks of the digital age want us to think that printed books are going over the cliff. But in a purely digital world, can we reliably save anything for posterity?
Without paper, it wouldn’t take an apocalypse to destroy books, or human knowledge… just the hands of a hacker or a corporation as when Amazon removed unauthorized Kindle copies of Orwell’s “1984” – in a Big Brotherly sort of way. You could ban books or burn them, but there’ll always be a renegade copy in print to be unearthed a year, or an eon from now.
In the basement of our 1922 Edwardian, we discovered still legible copies of the San Francisco Chronicle used as insulation. No need for a special machine or cryptic manuals to browse its content. Ages from now, the main hurdle with printed books will be decoding our modern languages. A book, should it last as long as the Dead Sea Scrolls, would convey value in its bulk, in the curious arrangement of symbols and images. An iPad, however, might be mistaken for a coaster. Or worse, a bomb that survived our troubled times.
We can’t mistake the convenience of the digital age for accessibility. How many times have you forgotten that blasted password? Or lost data to outmoded technologies? The floppy disks that stored drafts of my first novel are obsolete. Access to email and desktop copies depend on the good graces of hotmail and Microsoft. I’m holding on to the print copies of my book. And my hefty library.
Generations from now, I’d like my relics to be unearthed: my novel set in China where the past is erased in the name of progress, Gen-X mementos buried beneath the stones of Stanford’s Quad. You can’t take it with you, as the pharaohs and emperors once did, but you can leave some of it behind.
With a Perspective, I’m Li Miao Lovett.