Your Long Weekend Homework: Books as Ephemera? « Once & Future

Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

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!

5 thoughts on “Your Long Weekend Homework: Books as Ephemera?”

  1. David says:

    Another interesting post. I think the main difference between books and video games is that video games are constantly getting better and constantly evolving. Books were great 250 years ago, video games were crap just 25 years ago. There’s something called MAME which emulates the old video game systems for different computer platforms and it was fun for nostalgia’s sake, but a lot of the games from my childhood were pretty awful. As for collecting games, I’m sure that some people must but I can’t think of any.

    Maybe a better comparison would be a movie collection, how many different versions of a movie are you willing to buy. In the last 25 years we’ve had VHS, Beta, Laserdiscs, DVDs and nod Blue Rays. in a few year’s time will anyone even want a physical copy?

    1. Charlotte says:

      Movies are an interesting analogy, but almost too close to books – I know people with seriously extensive VHS and DVD collections who are going to be very cranky if they stop producing the format and need to re-purchase the collection. They will resist new formats because of this, as I do ebooks.

      I think video games are a useful analogy because they are truly transient and have never been very collectible – something I could see e-texts becoming. Emulators for really old games are also an interesting case. You can still get Duck Hunt and play it with an emulator, even if the original is lost. But once a text goes out of copyright, you can always find a cheap-o copy of an ebook for free too. The content of, say, Oliver Twist won’t ever really be lost to an ebook reader. They can always find it again. They will just lose the connection to the original read.

      As for the quality, it’s hard to respond to that. 😉 I miss Dr. Mario from my Nintendo 64! That game was amazing. But it’s sure no Canterbury Tales. Video games are evolving though. The narratives are getting more complex and better-written. Some recent games are proving to be deeper for both players and scholars (Portal) than we’ve seen before. Yet it doesn’t seem to be making any difference to whether people want them to last.

  2. Sheryl says:

    I get your point. But you’re sort of assuming that all books are worth owning/keeping. I almost never buy a book now that I haven’t checked out of the library first – I need to know that I really want/need it before buying it. And with a small apartment and limited shelf space, we have to do a purge every couple of years just to not be living in clutter.

    Yes, there are some books I’ll never part with, even if I haven’t cracked them open in 20 years. But there are plenty that I am happy to set free when the time comes, either because I didn’t love it all that much, or, in the case of the many food- and nutrition-related books I read, because the information is out of date and no longer useful to me as a resource for my food writing.

    As for the video games, my guess is that most people don’t replace all the old games they loved to play. Because there are either newer, better versions released on a more current format, or because they’ve grown bored and just want a new (different) game anyway.

  3. Axel says:

    This reminds me of something I was thinking about a couple days back – mass book ownership of many books is really a recent thing.

    Going back 50 years or less, most of the books read by most people were library books. Borrow it, read it, return it. If you want to read it again you borrow it again. And, I suggest that for most people, for most of the books they read that’s the best model because most books don’t get re-read, and even if they do, they are still spending most of their existence sitting on a shelf not being used.

    The electronic format of book ownership does provide the “benefit” of allowing companies to sell every reader a unique copy of the book, without consuming the resources of a paper copy, and cluttering up the homes of the owners…

    Mass book ownership by individuals is another example of profligate consumerism and thus not a good thing, and when you get right down to it most people don’t actually want to – hence the success of e-readers.

  4. Steph says:

    Timely for me: I was just discussing this sort of thing yesterday with a historian who was complaining that he had had a difficult time researching anything relatively current for his latest book because photos, being digital, are mostly being deleted, even media ones. We talked about how archiving and history and documentation is changing now that things are mostly digital and it does seem as though keeping anything is far less important than it used to be. Everything is so disposable in the name of space but also in terms of what we deem important now that everything changes so quickly. He said that we live in a time when not so much thought is given to what might be valuable later. We’re always thinking now, or looking forward to the future.

    Perhaps there is no answer and it comes down to personal preference? I keep nothing, I collect nothing, except books and photos.

    Sometimes I think, to make myself feel better, that I have so many books to read, that I am so far behind, that even if paper books became obsolete, I’d still have enough of them to read. 🙂

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