If digital cryptography isn’t enough to hide a book for ever, physical inks still might. Argentinian independent publishers Eterna Cadencia recently released El libro que no puede esperar (The Book That Can’t Wait), an anthology of new writers printed with ink that disappears in two months. As the publisher noted, books are patient, waiting for us to read them: good for us, not so good for new authors in need of attention. Most reactions to this experiment have been negative, not least because the proposal seems to invert the primary quality of the physical book: its persistence over time. While ebooks are often characterised as lightweight and transient, we are also horrified by aspects of their persistence, such as their ability to be “tracked” – see the controversy in these pages recently over analytics in ebooks. And the persistence of books is a myth in any case: acidic papers, weather and age conspire to yellow much of our literary heritage.
My favourite page on the music tracking site Last.fm is the one listing user’s deleted tracks: songs they’ve definitely listened to, but chosen to erase. Predictably, Adele and Lady Gaga figure prominently. If the internet is a medium of memory, what does it mean to forget a book? One of the advantages of ebooks might in fact be that they are easier to move on from, to delete, to forget, preventing us from getting bogged down in bad books and past selves, and, as Eterna Cadencia want us to do, move on and discover new things.
Ebooks: do we really want our literature to last for ever? | Books | The Observer. But a “yellowed” heritage is still a legible one. This is the key difference between analog and digital reproduction, right? — that with the digital, as a general rule, you either have it or you don’t, while with the analog there is a nearly-infinite gradation of possibilities. You might have a whole book that has survived in flawless form, like the Codex Sinaiticus; you might have one (the unique manuscript of Beowulf is an example) that has survived mostly intact; you might have a whole cache of documents in various stages of fragmentation, as with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Codexes really are pretty darn persistent. We have no idea how persistent digital texts will turn out to be; that’ll depend on how persistent we are in caring for them. And, you know, not blowing up the world or anything.
And as for that second paragraph: someone would only write that who thinks (a) the past probably has nothing essential to teach us, and (b) anything that we ever decide we do want from the past can easily be retrieved. I don’t believe either (a) or (b).