Death of Books?

17 May

First question– Can we please stop burning libraries?

While 212 BC saw the initiation of a construction project awe-inspiring even today­– the Great Wall of China– it also saw the death of thousands upon thousands of ancient Chinese texts, ordered burned by Emperor Chi Huang Ti.

Whether by Julius Caesar “accidentally” during the Alexandrian War, by Christian fanatics at the order of Emperor Theodosius I, or Muslim Caliph Umar after the Battle of Heliopolis– someone burned the massive Library at Alexandria (someone who found the ancient manuscripts enough fuel to heat baths for the soldiers for six months, according to legend).

Of the thousands of Mayan codices encountered by the Spanish conquistadors, fewer than five are known to exist today.

History is written by the winners of wars?  How about– history is erased by the winners of wars.  Which brings us to our:

Second question– How much irretrievable knowledge has been lost due to the suppression of knowledge over the course of civilization?

The hearts of Humanities majors everywhere are breaking.

But reading Cory Doctorow via free downloads (thanks once again, Creative Commons) reminds me that books are growing increasingly difficult to kill, at least completely.

If the printing press catalyzed a storm of information dissemination, what can we call the Internet?  Hurricane? Maelstrom?  And as much as I love holding a tangible, physical object while I read, I have to admit that there’s one very important advantage to distributing books online: they’re harder to burn.

I’m with Doctorow on this one:

“Here’s a thing I’ve noticed about the present: more people are reading more words off of more screens than ever before. Here’s another thing I’ve noticed about the present: fewer people are reading fewer words off of fewer pages than ever before. That doesn’t mean that the book is dying—no more than the advent of the printing press and the de-emphasis of Bible-copying monks meant that the book was dying—but it does mean that the book is changing. I think that literature is alive and well: we’re reading our brains out! I just think that the complex social practice of “book”—of which a bunch of paper pages between two covers is the mere expression—is transforming and will transform further.”

Maybe I can’t make notes in the margins of a PDF file, and maybe reading the glowing monitor of my laptop is more of a strain on the eyes, and maybe there’s no more “new book smell” or breaking in of a crease-free spine, but that’s not too much to complain about for the sake of increasing circulation of histories (or any other stories).  Technology doesn’t just transform, it evolves.

And after all those tragedies-by-fire in the ancient world, the printing press in the Middle Ages and the Creative Commons licenses today are in the same line:

Survival adaptations.

Read science fiction online?  Check.

Update: Turns out I can make notes in the margins of my Kindle, and the screen is much more like a print page than a computer monitor (no strain!).  This is not a paid advertisement or anything–I’m just very happy, and wanted to share another example of lovely technological “evolution.”


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