Saturday, November 2, 2013

Throwing the books into the waste bin



I did it. I threw them into the waste paper bin at an edge of the road. I threw them in: four supermarket bags full of books. Not waste paper, not leaflets, not magazines: books, perfectly legitimate books. Travel guides, cookbooks, novels, essays, manuals, textbooks, dictionaries, all that. Some were in bad shape, but several were in perfect conditions. Just not interesting any more: totally superseded by the Internet. What do you need books for, anyway?

As I walked away from the bin, I felt curiously elated; it was almost a sense of liberation. And, in another way, I felt guilty. For a few days, the flight of the books into the waste bin hovered in my mind. In a certain way, it had been a desecration; the destruction of holy objects.

I remembered the story of the burning of the library of Alexandria, the largest of the ancient world. I remembered the loss of the "Tyrrenikà", the lost book of wisdom of the Etruscans written by Emperor Claudius in person. I remembered Fahrenheit 451, the novel by Ray Bradbury that describes a world where burning books is a duty. I remembered the Great Book of the Gummi Bears.

It is said that the ability of the human mind to remember historical events doesn't go much beyond the stories that one hears from a grandfather (or, more likely, from a grandmother). So, in a few generations, all events and facts are consigned to the great repository of the dreamtime: the world of myths and heroes. It is only with books that we can keep records that go to earlier times, that keep the names and the dates of remote events. And that can do that even without an aged grandmother singing to you the songs of old times. So, the loss of a book may be the loss of an entire civilization, as it has happened when the last copy of the Tyrrenikà was thrown into someone's fireplace.

Books are so easily turned into smoke, paper destroyed by fire or humidity. But how about the Internet? Tiny bits of information encoded somewhere; readable only if you have the right kind of equipment and, more than all, if you have energy. How long will the records of our civilization last?

I have many more of those things; I think more than five thousands of them at home. I'll do it again.









17 comments:

  1. Ugo,

    internet is really energy very intensive gadget! Some argue that it will be one of the first thing to go off-line with energy decline (as the most complex and fragile element of our super-complex civilization). Thus with burning books you are commiting humanking to not jump to middle ages, but somewhere even sooner! ;-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes.... there is a death instinct.... was't Sigmund Freud saying that?

      Delete
  2. Hi Ugo,

    Hey, you could always donate them, to a local library, a used-book seller, whatever. The ones that are of any use, that is -- maybe not outdated textbooks, although some people are interested in those as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nobody wants old books of any kind any more: they have zero values unless they are antiques; and even in that case very often they will be thrown away after tearing off the illustrations. They will be framed and sold as decorative paintings

      Delete
    2. Holy moly, Ugo, I guess that makes me "nobody." I have scads of old books, no antiques, and I wouldn't part with them and am frequently on the lookout for more. I also have a high-quality slide rule and an abacus.

      Along with, of course, two Windows boxes, an iMac, a Macbook Pro, in iPad mini, an iPad 3, and a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. I want to be covered if civilization survives and if it doesn't.

      Delete
    3. I had this attitude - I wouldn't want to part with my books. Then, something like "peak books" took place.....

      Delete
  3. And here I was telling my wife that we should get a good laser printer so we could make physical books (or binders) out of internet documents. That way they are good for decades, far longer than the internet will last. There is much valuable information that should be kept available even after world economic collapse.

    I'm expanding my library in pre-20th Century technical, craft and ag subjects and culling out fiction, travel guides and software manuals.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, but we have to choose which books to save. We also would need some kind of physical substrate stronger and more durable than paper. Strange that nobody seems to have been thinking to that.

      Delete
    2. Ugo
      Good point.
      Some texts survived better than others in the archaeological record.
      And there is always the gold standard!
      Brass could have more utility? Were those Etruscan texts in Gubbio on bronze or brass?

      While we have the means for mass production I can imagine an analog Gold Master Disc that could be read back and visually amplified in a way analogous to rotating an acoustic recording. Might not be clever to use gold though, despite piles of the stuff stored uselessly, because some cultures have an odd desire to melt it down and re-use it. (Not in Burma though I believe.)

      Phil

      Delete
    3. Ugo
      Have you seen this? It was new to me. I would be interested in your opinion.
      Phil
      http://longnow.org/clock/

      Delete
    4. Very nice, Phil. It resonates with the way some of us think

      "I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks."

      Delete
  4. Brave move Ugo.
    Somebody will have to do it sometime if you don't.
    There is though a large English language 'used book' market via internet - see bookfinder.com
    Local book shops often have a sideline in offering used books on line.
    (I still buy used books - and the service often includes a charitable donation.)

    Good technical texts of basic practical & theoretical knowledge (see also Joe above), as well as archival historical records are bring stored on acid-free paper because they are more secure than other forms of storage. (Analogous to ongoing investment in 'seed vaults' for the future and see the new one in Svalbard - Wikipedia.)

    And don't they have recycling for paper in Italy? Perhaps Roma could advise? (Incidentally, I can imagine Roma salvage extending to world-wide used-book trade while that is possible.)
    best
    Phil

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, the paper bins are supposed to collect paper for recycling. The funny thing is that I know for sure that the paper mills in Tuscany import scrap paper from China!

      Delete
  5. Volunteers from our local library support a biannual used book sale for decades now in Gainesville, Florida (http://www.folacld.org/bksl.html). People come from all over the southeastern US to the semiannual sales (more than 500,000 books, records, games, CDs, DVDs, audio, video, paintings, posters, prints, puzzles and magazines were for the sale including a rare book section!). The sales run from Saturday through Wednesday during one week each April and May. In a large windowed warehouse room on Main Street volunteers sort and price books year round on subject area tables. Thousands of people come and buy for days. The money ($US 231,300 in 2012-2013) supports the public library, literacy programs, mini-grants, disadvantaged children's reading program, a book endowment fund, scholarships for library personnel. The elation you felt Ugo on destroying your books was the probably same thrill a criminal experiences after committing a crime. Do you doubt that the Internet and computers will pass away as the energy flood of the past few centuries ebbs? Books will be preserved as useful by the literate, I suspect, long after computers pass away as incomprehensible and unusable junk. Cuneiform was the longest lived form of writing, in use for over 3 millennia and persisting in some legal documents until early Parthian rule in 126 B.C.E. after the end of Mesopotamian Polity in 539 B.C.E. See (The Slow Deaths of Writing) 2 July 2004 Vol 305 pp31-33) SCIENCE.
    Burn fossil fuels, preserve books.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There is a thrill in being evil, yes!

      Delete
  6. To burn or not to burn, that is the question!

    But it already doesn't matter. We are living in the Dark Age right now. How so? Thus: The future will know almost nothing directly about us. The internet will last twenty years. It will have been nice while it lasted. Then poof! All those bits and pixels, scattering into the ether! Modern paper lasts about as long. High quality paper (that is, acid-free and well made, but where do you find that?) would last more than a century. In fact, the only thing that will survive from our time is analogue audio recording on vinyl (vinyl records) made in mid-20th century.

    Could be worse, I suppose . . .

    The ancient Mesopotamians had it right: Stylus pressings into clay tablets. In times of trouble your library gets burned, which bakes the tablets and they keep even better! As far as I know, nobody has ever improved on that.

    --Gaianne

    ReplyDelete
  7. It is said that the ability of the human mind to remember historical events doesn't go much beyond the stories that one hears from a grandfather.

    Robert D. Blackburn

    ReplyDelete

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)