The Downside of Digital Immortality

Last month John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture, lamented a loss of books via his Twitter account: “Went to garage to get a book from a box of African American history and lit. Mildew. Aggh. Aggggh.” Aggh is right! We book lovers know the sinking feeling that accompanies such a discovery, be it mildew, a child’s busy hands, or – all too common – the lent book that never returns. ¬†John’s tweet, and the sympathetic condolences it elicited, got me thinking about the risks inherent to our attachment to things, especially books of the physical variety.

A few of the books in our living room.

I continue to have little interest in e-readers for a bunch of reasons, including a couple I’ve written about before. ¬†But doesn’t John’s experience with the garage mildew make a good case for digital books? As I understand it, these texts are saved in “the cloud” so that, should your reading device succumb to the elements, your books are never in danger of being lost. ¬†The e-book is immortal, always available to its owner. ¬†It cannot be lost.

This appears to be a great improvement over the decay and loss-prone cover and paper variety of book. ¬†But I wonder. ¬†Doesn’t the lament over the lost book say something about its goodness as a physical thing? Such a loss would surely be¬†experienced¬†differently if it took place in the digital world. ¬†I imagine being frustrated with the technology but unconcerned about my ability to find the book. ¬†And let’s assume for a minute that an e-book could actually be lost, dissolved into the digital ether. ¬†I have to believe the loss would still be experienced differently than a well-loved, dog-eared copy of a favorite book that has long sat on the study shelf or even in a box in the garage. ¬†The physical book has memory¬†attached to itself, whether in the form of hastily appropriated bookmarks, notes scrawled in the margins, or the simple power of an object to recall forgotten thoughts, conversations, and emotions. ¬†Assuming an e-book could actually be lost, that loss would be an¬†inconvenience¬†and little more.

And so I’m left to accept that some objects are valuable enough to risk their loss and the¬†accompanying sadness. The promise of permanence made by the digital text ends up eliminating much of what many of us look to our books for.

2 thoughts on “The Downside of Digital Immortality

  1. I, too, am cool on this development. I don’t own one. I’m biased for itchy pieces of paper. But, being generous, perhaps e-readers are for the books we don’t want on our shelves. I can’t think of a book worth reading that wouldn’t also be worth having, in a physical sense, but maybe…

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