|Detail from Medieval Book of Hours (1533), via Wikimedia Commons|
A little while ago I told a friend that when I buy an e-book, I often buy a hard copy of the book at the same time. Not surprisingly, my friend was a little like, WTF? Is that an "oh look at my library" sort of thing?
No. As I told my friend at the time, one reason I buy and hold on to a lot of hard cover books is that I think you'd have to be crazy to trust the mega-corporations that produce e-books. Surely you remember when Amazon disappeared all those copies of 1984 from people's Kindles in 2009, becoming an early strong entry in the most ironic moment of the new millennium? How creepy was that?
Amazon just has the power to take away or change your book at any time. Once Amazon has that power, what are we supposed to do, trust them not to use it? What will happen when Homeland Security tells Amazon some book or part of a book is pro-terrorism/anti-American/related-in-some-nebulous-way-to-the-vague-possibility-of-child-pornography?
You know what will happen. The book will be synced out of your kindle and out of your life forever.
That's reason number one for having the ink and wood pulp on the shelf. But there's also this other thing, which is that the fact that so few people want to buy and hold on to physical books makes me wonder: is no one else thinking about the coming apocalypse?
I mean, is it really so far fetched to think that part of the coming climate disaster is going to involve having little access to electricity? And that if there's not much electricity, the only texts we're going to have access to is the text that's actually printed on paper?
Everything else would be lost, right? I'm struck at how few people seem to worry about this. Getting rid of library books -- especially if you can have "e-access" -- seems to strike almost everyone as simple common sense. But what's going to happen when the lights go out?
In his recent book Ethics for a Broken World, the philosopher Tim Mulgan deploys the incredibly imaginative technique of presenting his book in the form of lectures that take place after the coming apocalypse, when resources are terribly scarce and there's not enough to keep everyone alive. In the imagined future, they refer to life in our period as the "affluent" world.
In studying the affluent world, the lecturer of the future explains, they use texts "translated from fragments of affluent philosophy recently recovered from the sunken cities of the western Atlantic: the famous Princeton Codex."
You get the picture. A lot of land is under water. There's no internet. There's no JSTOR or iBooks or Project Gutenberg.Whatever we got is salvaged from some actual books and actual pieces of paper.
In my home, we use the term "Princeton Codex" as shorthand for the collection of ideas around the possibility of a dark future, where tattered damp copies of Portnoy's Complaint and A Theory of Justice and The Autobiography of Malcom X are all there is from which the people of the future might be able to connect with us, to remember us, and to grasp what the hell we were thinking.
Hard copy books were much on my mind a few weeks ago, when I went through my crisis of stuff. I got rid of clothing and kitchen stuff and unwanted gifts and old pieces of paper, but there's one category of thing I didn't touch: the books. They're piling up, but it doesn't bother me.
The possibility that the tiny libraries of readers like me all around the globe might help, or at least momentarily entertain, the people of the future came to mind immediately when I read this week's fiction in The New Yorker, a story called "The Empties" that takes place in the near future, two years after the power goes out.
A small city Vermont is struggling along. Everyone who hasn't died of disease has pretty much learned how to chop wood, how to use fireplaces, how to make "arrangements" for the other things they need, and how to get along without knowing what is happening anywhere else.
And at the center of town, a librarian carries a shotgun. She sleeps in the library, and allows no one to check out anything. You want to read, you sit in the building, because:
"People might share their last finger of motor oil, Matilda says, break a four-inch candle in two, divide a pot of beans to serve eight, but they’ll kill you for a book."
Next time you're tempted to avoid the clutter and go e-book only, think of your 23rd century counterpart. She might be cold and hungry, but she might also be jonesing for a little education or light reading. Don't let the Princeton Codex be all she has.