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 Just not interesting any more: totally superseded by the Internet.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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)