Staying Power

Are e-books truly e-ternal? Columnist Darrell Delamaide isn't so sure.


Post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories are more popular than ever. Whether it’s just a normal end of the world (The Road), a zombie-ridden end of the world (World War Z, The Walking Dead), or a future determined by inequality (The Hunger Games, Elysium), catastrophic destinies for mankind are definitely in.

It’s fortunate for the survivors in these future worlds that there are so many canned goods. In The Road and The Walking Dead, the few who do survive live for the most part by scavenging these tinned foods that keep, if not forever, at least for a long, long time. Luckily, not everyone switched to an exclusive diet of farmer’s market vegetables.

In the long run, the survivors must, of course, plant new food or expand their eating habits to include…better left unsaid. But what will these survivors read? All the Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and so on are pretty useless in these worlds without electricity.

For that matter, how will archeologists in some future age, whether post-apocalyptic or not, be able to decipher what our civilization was like? Today we can rely on graven runes or vellum manuscripts to re-create previous civilizations. But archeologists in the year 3000 won’t be so lucky. They will find shattered tablets with corroded circuitry and puzzle over what knowledge they ever held. Even if one of these fragile e-book readers survives, will future researchers find the source codes that are the key to digital texts? For that matter, will they find the cloud that those texts are kept in?

Even in our lifetimes, what happens if Amazon goes out of business, and the cloud with my entire library goes POOF, or another company’s e-reader can’t read my lovingly collected e-books?

E-books are undoubtedly convenient for trips or for reading in bed or other places you don’t want to lug around a heavy book. They are good for reading books, but we don’t know yet how good they are for keeping them.

This all came to mind when I was eagerly searching for a copy of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University’s Belknap Press apparently had not anticipated that a 700-page economics tome packed with statistics and charts would shoot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. The initial print runs were quickly sold out, and even with presses on three continents churning out the book, it remained “temporarily out of stock” as booksellers filled back orders with the new copies.

I could have downloaded it on my Kindle (though something in me rebels against paying $22 for an e-book), but I knew that this book — which reviewers like Paul Krugman and others have already labeled one of the seminal works of the century — is one that I want to keep on my shelf for reference. Also, in all honesty, I’m not likely to read it straight through, but dip in periodically as needed.

Somehow, the flickering digital version — fine for reading a detective story or, well, a dystopian thriller — didn’t seem up to the task.

One classic dystopian scenario, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (rendered compellingly into film by François Truffaut), depicted a fireman as someone whose job it was to burn books, at the titular temperature, to keep a docile society from getting, literally, any ideas. It was the hobos who kept the books alive, by committing them to memory and passing them down orally.

This might work for the 100 Great Books, but it seems like a lot of knowledge could get lost unless zombie brains have greater capacity than we give them credit for.

Long story short: I’m waiting patiently for my hard copy of the Piketty book. With tens of thousands of copies in print, perhaps at least one book will survive the apocalypse so that future historians can figure out where we went wrong. 

Darrell Delamaide, a journalist and author in Washington, DC, writes a food blog, You Are What You Eat, and a book blog, Cogito Ergo Sum. He is also the author of two novels, Gold and The Grand Mirage, as well as two nonfiction books.


 

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