Forgetting to Remember

In the throes of a seismic shift, a runaway intellectual fashion may dismantle our cultural legacy

The interior of the Austrian National Library | Photo courtesy of the Austrian National Library

Hungarian writer Paul Lendvai called our office the other day looking for a buyer for his entire collection of books in English. He’s moving to a smaller apartment and has to down size.  Which sounded reasonable enough, until I realized he was the third person that month wanting to de-accession a library.

In the age of digitalization, books are becoming like raccoon coats or Victorian furniture, things nobody wants any more because they take up too much space. The idea is that in the age of digitalization, everything can be downloaded and read on your laptop, your iPad or your mobile phone. Only fools like me are weighed down by thick stacks of paper, bound together between covers and sold with a slick photo and a jacket blurb!

I have nightmares about this: I dread that I will wake up one day and all of the books piled on the floor by my bed will have vanished in the night, that someone will have crept in while I was asleep and spirited them away; that the ones I am in the middle of too will be gone – these are the ones that lie open and face down by my pillow when I reach for them in the middle of the night! Each book lost is a conversation interrupted, a friend or a lover I will never see again.

And don’t tell me I can have all those books and more on some electronic device or other, slim as a letter case that slips into the outside pouch of my laptop cover: In my dream, I know that it will only take one sizzling electrical storm or an over-juiced security scanner at the airport and my whole library will be gone. And with it, a whole history of associations, and an important record of how I have become the person I am.

Still, I am writing these reflections on a MacBook Pro, and will email them to our design platform for layout in an InDesign file from which the Vienna Review will be printed. And from which this article will eventually end up on out website from which it may be read from anywhere in the world. So I am as much part of the universe of electronic publishing as the average journalist or publisher today.

I am not a machine-smashing Luddite. But I am puzzled beyond reason by the haste to abandon the durable and discursive world of print, concrete, companionable and, yes, convenient, for the flickering illusions of the digital screen. Every few months, technologies change; just today we encountered an almost insurmountable problem of converting between versions of our design program for work carried out on different computers. What happens a few years from now, when none of the systems can still read the programs in which everything is being written or designed today?  The files from a publication I worked on in the 1980s were all in Word Perfect and Quark Xpress, fine programs few today have never heard of.

“There is a lot we are going to have to do, so that there is no Dark Ages of the 21st Century,” said Max Kaiser, the director of research for the Austrian National Library in an interview in late September with Die Presse am Sonntag, “because our data systems cannot guarantee that the information will still be accessible in a few decades, not to mention in a few centuries.”  This means that little will be carried forward by the libraries, archives and records of our era, created in impermanent materials on passing technologies. “Similarly to the way we see the early Middle Ages,” Kaiser said, “our time in history will be ‘dark.’ ”

We are in the throes of a seismic shift in our cultural history, a runaway intellectual fashion that may turn out to be more foolish than sub prime mortgages, fast food, or suburban sprawl — something that seems novel and exciting for a while but will end up causing no end of mischief, dismantling the cultural legacy that has taken countless generations, in some cases centuries to create and that will take generations to restore.

This is where we are. The question is, what are we going to do about it.

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