Sunday, July 19, 2009
By now, everyone's heard of the Kindle Kontroversy, in which the Amazon folks up and abruptly deleted Kindle copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from users' Kindles because the Orwell copyright holders objected. Poof! Gone. Anyone who remembers Fahrenheit 451 from back in the old days can understand my rationale for collecting and preserving as many books as I have from eras gone by, particularly the period from 1920 - 1960.
Above is a picture of part of our library in New Mexico. Every time I go I try to find more room for more books in our house that is already jammed with them. There are books in every room -- except the bathroom, where there are plenty of magazines instead. And we still have several thousand more books to take to New Mexico over the next few years.
I've stopped buying them in quantity any more; once the count reached well over 10,000, I figured it was time to take a rest from purchases for a while, organize what we have (somewhat) and cull duplicates. While I will cull the duplicates and consider using the books in the worst condition in artistic projects rather than trying to preserve them whole, this is nothing like "deleting" them the way Amazon has done with the Orwell classics.
I've long been dubious of digitizing the printed word and making access to it dependent on the devices that can read the format. Then to take it a step further to Amazon's Kindle, wherein the device is linked to a service, a service which can, quite arbitrarily and without warning remove digital works from the device remotely and at will.
Digitizing has a benefit in the short term in that more people are theoretically able to access works easily. The thousands of books I have collected are not at all easy to access: you have to physically present yourself at my house in rural New Mexico, or you have to contact me somehow and ask me to physically send you a volume, or you're shit out of luck. You can find the volume somewhere else. Buh-bye.
But then over time, you get into the problem of books disappearing. Most of those I have collected in the last few years, for example, have been discards from households, libraries, and so forth. Books that people and institions no longer want for whatever reason: they're obsolete, not in the best condition, they contain erroneous information, they're duplicates of other volumes, or nobody ever read them in the first place, why would anyone want to read them now? I have a lot of text books, for example, from the '30's and '40's -- some with all sorts of interesting theories on psychology and eugenics. Hmm. None of this information is currently in vogue (thank goodness) but to see how pervasive it once was is bracing to say the least.
The instinct is just to discard them all, but I look at them as historical artifacts and a means of understanding some of the reasons why earlier generations believed what they did and did what they did.
These are books that are unlikely to be digitized, but they may be preserved in the flesh as it were by people like me in various places around the country, and in time may become useful historical documents.
I also have numerous volumes preserved on my various computers, and every now and then I wonder idly what will happen to them when the machines in question crash, as they are wont to do, and access to their contents is difficult, costly to restore, or impossible? While I can understand and anticipate that my current PCs and notebooks won't work properly forever, and I'm more or less prepared to lose the contents of the machines if I don't get on the stick and back up everything pronto, that's quite a different thing from Amazon (or some other company) literally deleting digitized volumes from devices without warning and without recourse.
In fact, making it possible for companies to do this -- not just in the literary field, either -- has been a corporate goal for a long time. How to perfectly control individuals' access to and use of all kinds of entertainment, educational, and financial resources and information is the Gordian Knot of our age. Governments try to do it -- our own included -- as do corporations.
The point of having so many literal books on hand is to make that control slightly less possible on a micro scale. If enough people do that -- hold on to their books among other resources from the past -- they preserve part of history, and from that history, learning can continue, whatever happens to the electronic works and world we are so reliant on.
Books largely vanished from the Western World during the aftermath of the Fall of Rome. But many books had been preserved outside the confines of Dark Ages Europe, and it was their rediscovery by Europeans that spurred the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was a return to learning, and it was made possible because Arabs and Byzantines (among others) had preserved or recopied ancient books and made them available.
No matter how successful digitization is in the short run, we'd do well to maintain libraries of actual books as well...