In Defense of the Book
In a typical mall there's usually a computer store hawking the latest and fastest products on the market.
The atmosphere is chaotic, noisy and fast-paced. Customers dart around like lizards on warm rocks looking for just the right router or a specific upgrade. The salespeople are young and brash, chatting rapidly in the incomprehensible language of bytes and bandwidth. They sell speed, data storage capacity, networking, connectivity, versatility, and tons of options.
A year before, that computer store was doing exactly the same thing. But the computers and software then considered the "hottest and fastest" have become obsolete. To own something that old is cause for embarrassment.
Just next door is another store. There the ambiance is more subdued, sedate, almost reverent. Customers speak in hushed tones and walk quietly down the aisles. The sales clerks are soft-spoken and respectful.
The second store sells books.
The bookstore has the newest bestsellers and most popular authors' works. It also contains reprints of books written by Mark Twain, plays by William Shakespeare, or the collected works of Jane Austen. In the bookstore very little has changed in centuries.
Consider the book, little more than a collection of printed pages arranged and bound in a cover.
Yet a book can convey ideas and information anywhere, any time and in any language.
Books are seeds, eager to germinate and grow, blossoming like paper roses to fertilize the world with the pollen of knowledge.
Books are time machines, portals into the past and future, instant travel to distant lands in the palm of the hand.
Books are dormant volcanoes holding hidden wonders ready to erupt in cascades of literary magma.
And just as good now as when they were printed.
Books are capable of inspiring readers yet unborn to learn, and will never be obsolete.
But in today's fast-paced world of instant information and entertainment, books have lost their allure to many people. They can't compete with the computer industry's overwhelming multimedia hype. Speed and versatility are all that matter. E-books and E-readers have become the Serpent in the bibliophilic Garden of Eden.
But there has to be a point at which even the popular Kindle won't fill every niche. For instance, in some future courtroom, will a witness place their hand on a Kindle and say "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me Amazon.com"?
However, technology never remains stable.
The speed and accessibility of the world's knowledge is only a mouse click away, and it comes at a price.
Time is the enemy of computers and technology and it becomes more so with each generation. That hot new system bought today is already outdated before the box is opened. It is impossible to keep up.
Storing knowledge wasn't always that way.
Cuneiform clay tablets inscribed in ancient Babylon 5,000 years ago still hold detailed information.
The classic poems of Homer are studied by scholars 2,800 years after his death.
Books on papyrus, the origin of our word for paper, from the Library of Alexandria twenty centuries ago still tell stories and thoughts of minds long since turned to dust.
The greatest single work of human intellect, Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica, is still as readable as when it was published in 1687.
Newspapers from over a century ago contain vivid accounts of battles and events that happened long before even our grandparents were born.
Then the electronic revolution created new ways of storing data. First came records, then tapes and finally disks. More information was crammed into smaller spaces.
But the life of that data became shorter and shorter with each new invention.
A 78 rpm record could last a century, the music still sweet. The compact technology of audio and video tape loses most of its clarity after a decade.
The old 5" soft floppy disks were once the cutting edge of information technology. Now only museums display them.
Today a user wanting to read information stored on a 3.25" floppy disk is unable to do so. The data is unreachable.
CD-ROMs are currently the hottest storage medium. But the data stored on them degrades after only a few years.
How long will the vaunted MP3, with nearly limitless data capacity, continue to be state-of-the-art? Optical data storage life is measured in months.
Computers make information easily obtainable and impressively fast, but are limited by the software and hardware in current use.
Technology moves on, and not everything of value manages to go with it.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's sophisticated computers are unable to read data sent to Earth by Voyager less than a generation ago. The storage medium and hardware are no longer compatible. Billions of bits of information, lost forever.
In order to keep their market share, the computer companies design systems good for only a year or two. Before long the user is forced to purchase upgrades, new hardware, and finally an entire system. The best one available. For the moment. The cycle never stops.
The trend-setters say we are entering a "paperless age". That may hold some truth. Newspapers are gradually becoming a thing of the past. But somehow it's not easy to let go of paper. Every office has a printer and copier. Holding a page with writing is still more convenient and comforting than an E-reader.
Books are free at the library; friends and family freely loan good books to one another and eagerly discuss them. Many people like to read a good book more than once. It's like visiting an old friend, and just as satisfying.
Book clubs are in every city in the country. Licensing agreements make lending out software a crime, and there are very few CD-ROM clubs.
Obsolescence is built into computers, but never into a book.
Any book, no matter when published, can take readers into vast worlds limited only by their imagination.
Works by Shakespeare, Chaucer, Twain, Hemingway, and Dickens are immediately available to anyone in the home, workplace lunch room, on airliners, in a park or on a cruise ship. There's no need to look for an outlet, recharge the batteries, log in, remember a password, or double-click.
Technology moves remorselessly forward and callously leaves the detritus of its antecedents behind, but books last forever. Some books have become collectors' items worth great sums of money. Someone who collects old and rare books is called a Bibliophile.
Old software and programs are useless and a person who collects them is called a Nerd.
In a world moving faster than we can comprehend, we should treasure the old ways to learn, to save knowledge, to expand our minds. Some things never go out of style.
Books never cause frustration from slow speed or balky hardware. Unlike computers, spilling a beverage on the book isn't cause for frantically checking the system for shorts. Simply wipe the pages with a paper towel and continue reading.
In the case of the technophile who prefers to read books on the computer, what happens when reading the last chapter of a good mystery and the system crashes?
They can yell or scream, throw a tantrum against Bill Gates. Or maybe sit back and perhaps...read the book. No virus ever wiped a dog-eared copy of Gone With the Wind.
A closing thought with more than a bit of irony.
What is the term in current use for saving the location of an Internet site?
Bookmarking a webpage.