Books are more important than ever in times like these—times of “alternative facts” spouted by government propagandists, as well as accusations of “fake news” when a journalist’s report contradicts the canonical story. In this post I want to write about why we might want to keep our own libraries—books printed on paper, on shelves in homes, and not somewhere up in the cloud.
But before I go into detail, a reminder: If you’re in the Portland area this coming Sunday, September 8, I’ll be reading from my latest historical novel, A Meteor Shower, at Two Rivers Bookstore, 8836 N. Lombard St., 2-4 pm. I’ll also be talking about the research that went into writing it and its two predecessors in the Jezebel trilogy, and why my retelling differs from the commonly accepted account.
Why not simply read books on Kindle or similar devices? The books are cheap, you can easily order them on Amazon, and you can carry thousands of them on your device when you go on vacation. They don’t clutter your house or take up space in your tiny apartment, because they’re stored in “the cloud”—that is, on the Internet, on a big server somewhere in the world. That’s fine, I suppose, if you’re reading current mysteries or romance novels, things that are easily replaceable. But my alarm bells went off in 2009 when I read that people reading certain novels on Kindle found that the screens had suddenly gone blank. As it happens, those books were George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm.
The issue, it turned out, was that the supplier of digital works didn’t have copyright. The readers complained and got their money back, but not the books or (for students) the research notes they had taken on the books. They learned then that they hadn’t purchased these items, only rented them. There was public outrage and Amazon promised they wouldn’t withdraw books that way in the future. However, even assuming you can trust that promise, think about what might happen if the political climate continues to worsen.
The Catholic Church, certain Islamic sects, and others have burned entire libraries of ancient literature, and much of the knowledge contained in them has been lost forever. As I discovered while researching my books, you were much more likely to survive medical treatment in ancient Egypt than medieval Europe, because Egypt had astonishingly sophisticated medical understanding, but the libraries that held this information were destroyed and the knowledge was then gone from the world. And people suffered and died, unnecessarily. The Nazis burned thousands of books, particularly those by Jews, leftists of any stripe, liberals, democrats, and pacifists. They burned books on sex education. Is it hard to imagine a fascist regime coming to America? It would be much easier to wipe books off the cloud than to search every home, bookstore, and library to purge published material that the government disagrees with. Such as, for instance, treatises on climate science. Or novels by Orwell.
As I’ve discovered recently, it is important, as well, to buy those print books from an honest retailer in your community—not only to support local businesses but also to make sure you’re getting the genuine article and not a cheap counterfeit with missing pages, typos everywhere, garbled passages, and word changes that complete distort the meaning of the original. Right now you can find a plethora of such counterfeits, produced in low wage countries and available—guess where—on Amazon. (For more details, check out https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/19/technology/amazon-orwell-1984.html.)
See you at Two Rivers on Sunday!