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E-books and the Apocalypse

I am the semi-satisfied owner of a Kindle (semi-satisfied because the DRM still creeps me out) and in general, I’m a fan of electronic books.  I’m also a fan of hardbacks, mass paperbacks, trade paperbacks, super deluxe special editions… basically I’m an all-around kind of book fan.

But I do have one worry about electronic books that no one ever seems to talk about: what possible disastrous effect will electronic books have on the store of human knowledge, art, and entertainment in the event of an apocalypse?

I know this is illogical.  I know that books printed on paper are vulnerable to all kinds of destruction: fire, flood, crumbling to pieces due to old age, complete inaccessibility due to building collapse, toxic waste, control of written material by a tyrannical minority, etc.  So electronic books don’t have the monopoly on tragic loss.  But still, think of the possibilities.

First, on a personal level.  If you were living through a Lost scenario (plane crash onto isolated island, no rescue in sight), your e-reader would die within … a couple weeks, maybe?  If you were lucky and it didn’t suffer unfixable damage.  Wouldn’t you rather have a few paperbacks that would last your entire exile?  Not only could you read those books again and again (and out loud to your fellow strandees as well), if you had a pen, you could write *new* stories in the margins and end pages, thereby giving you more reading material.

Or what if the power was off in your house for a week or more?  (This actually happens in real life even without an apocalypse.)  And let’s say you’ve been lazy about keeping your e-reader up to full power (this also actually happens in real life).  So once it gets dark, you decide to read with your flashlight, since you can’t watch movies or TV, you can’t play piano because it’s too hard to read the sheet music in the dark, you can’t call anyone because your cell phone is running out of charge and you’re preserving it for an emergency.  But then you can’t read either because your Kindle is dead!  Meaning you’ll have to find a coffee shop that allows you to mooch off power (or hope the power isn’t off at your office as well, if you are fortunate enough to have one of those).  Or you’ll be stuck whispering ghost stories in the dark.

Or what if, twenty years from now, Amazon goes out of business?  And what if there are problems, possibly due to the stupid DRM, with porting your library, now possibly numbering in the thousands of titles (definitely at least hundreds), over to whatever alternate e-reader is dominant at the time?  (If there is an alternate and Amazon doesn’t go under in a general economic collapse.)  You may scoff and say how unlikely this is, but having just read Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects (which I highly recommend even if I think it should have been a novel instead of a novella), you never know.  (Note: this is especially true if you are the kind of person who daydreams about apocalypses.)  After all, what good do all those old 5.25 floppy disk backups do me today?  I can’t look at any of my old papers or stories for reference anymore unless I happen to locate a hard copy.

Now, expand out to a societal level.  My favorite apocalypses to ponder these days are generally related to global warming and/or running out of oil and/or some political excitement.

 

A retreating glacier

(Sorry, I don’t do zombies.)  Now, if I’m feeling optimistic about these scenarios, I can hope that by the time trouble strikes, solar power has become more widespread (or wind, or water) or some other practical energy source has been developed.  But will the infrastructure be in place so there isn’t even a blip when switching over the electricity grid?  Will there be enough electricity all the time so people can spare the amount it takes to charge an e-reader instead of, say, run lab or farming equipment or a water heater or power a hospital?  Now if you owned physical books, on the other hand, your only problem would be lack of time in daylight to read them, and if you could figure out how to make candles, well then, problem solved.  (Now an e-book with built in solar energy panels could be cool, but what if the panels break?  Would spare parts be available?  Would I have or be able to purchase the expertise to use said spare parts?)

Whenever I plan my ideal supplies for surviving post-apocalypse, I always include as many reference books as possible (unless, of course, I have to be mobile in said apocalypse world, which severely limits the books you can carry).  There are so many basic things that modern life has left me unprepared to face: making candles is a great example.  Making soap, medical and first aid techniques, mechanical crash courses for as many devices as possible, farming and gardening, how to gut a fish or deal with a live chicken if I want to eat it.  The knowledge I don’t have that would be necessary for survival goes on and on.  Maybe I’ll be lucky and live in a community with experts on various of these topics, but what if I don’t?  I’ll have to rely on the reference books.

And I’m not even getting into the dream of preserving human knowledge and art (Shakespeare, anyone?) for future generations.

What this all boils down to is that I’m unlikely to give up my physical library any time soon.  Call me old-fashioned in ten years or twenty, and I’ll probably cheerfully agree with you.  But if the apocalypse comes, I’ll have the last laugh.

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