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The Downside of Digital Immortality

Last month John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture, lamented a loss of books via his Twitter account:

Went to garage to get a book from a box of African American history and lit. Mildew. Aggh. Aggggh.

Aggh is right! We book lovers know the sinking feeling that accompanies such a discovery, be it mildew, a child’s busy hands, or – all too common – the lent book that never returns. John’s tweet, and the sympathetic condolences it elicited, got me thinking about the risks inherent to our attachment to things, especially books of the physical variety.

I continue to have little interest in e-readers for a bunch of reasons, including a couple I’ve written about before. But doesn’t John’s experience with the garage mildew make a good case for digital books? My friend, who works for an Austin mold removal company agrees that he prefers digital over paper, as well. As I understand it, these texts are saved in “the cloud” so that, should your reading device succumb to the elements, your books are never in danger of being lost. The e-book is immortal, always available to its owner.  It cannot be lost.

This appears to be a great improvement over the decay and loss-prone cover and paper variety of book. But I wonder. Doesn’t the lament over the lost book say something about its goodness as a physical thing? Such a loss would surely be experienced differently if it took place in the digital world. I imagine being frustrated with the technology but unconcerned about my ability to find the book. And let’s assume for a minute that an e-book could actually be lost, dissolved into the digital ether.  

I have to believe the loss would still be experienced differently than a well-loved, dog-eared copy of a favorite book that has long sat on the study shelf or even in a box in the garage. The physical book has memory attached to itself, whether in the form of hastily appropriated bookmarks, notes scrawled in the margins, or the simple power of an object to recall forgotten thoughts, conversations, and emotions. Assuming an e-book could actually be lost, that loss would be an inconvenience and little more.

And so I’m left to accept that some objects are valuable enough to risk their loss and the accompanying sadness. The promise of permanence made by the digital text ends up eliminating much of what many of us look to our books for.