May 20, 2011
Your Long Weekend Homework: Books as Ephemera?
Lobbing a heavy one into the crowd today, in case you lot are the sort who prefer to spend a sunny Victoria Day weekend casting bones and mulling over puzzles instead of, say, sitting on a dock in Muskoka sipping lemonade, as I will be doing.
I moan and groan a lot about ebooks and digitization of literature. I know, I’m tedious. One of my main bones of contention with the format is the impermanence of it. Who wants to buy a library you can’t keep? That you will lose to hardware, software, or format changes? That could vanish with the parent company? That can be edited and censored from afar? I’ve always asked these questions rhetorically as if the answer is “Duh, nobody!” and anyone who hasn’t yet come to that conclusion is simply ill-informed. But today it dawned on me – what if nobody cares? Does permanence matter?
I think of how we treat video games. We pay $50-$80 for them. We play them through generally once, but sometimes over and over again if they’re truly beloved. They are unquestionably objects or narratives of cultural value and importance. Yet it doesn’t bother much of anyone when a new video game system comes out and renders all the games you bought for the old system unplayable. If the old disks, rule books and boxes are lost, it’s no big deal. Do you know anyone (anyone sane, anyway) who keeps a library of every video game they’ve ever owned, from King’s Quest and Lode Runner to Dragon Age II? Institutions have been founded which do, of course, archive these things, so they aren’t really “lost”. It’s just the average user who doesn’t care much for the longer term life of the purchase.
What if it were the same with books? What would the cultural implications be of a world where, in general, readers don’t have libraries? Where thousands of copies of each title aren’t passed down from generation to generation? Libraries would, of course, archive them. Collectors would too. But what is lost if the book becomes analogous to a video game – something everyone has for a while, but which is lost and forgotten within the lifespan of the playing device? Would that really be a very big deal?
I have no answer yet. I leave you with this one for the weekend!