Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The need to forget

I noticed the other day that a lot of the books I have read in the last few weeks were written on or around 1895. I wondered idly to myself how many books must have been published in 1895, and how many are now completely forgotten, and lost forever. I then wondered how many were published in 1995, and how many of these would also be forgotten and unread, but preserved forever in digital form.
The 1895 books have been through a winnowing process: the best have been reprinted, re-read, republished, filmed, and, in all the cases I am thinking of, recorded for LibriVox. They have had the opportunity to be forgotten, but enough people remembered them to preserve them, and keep them alive.
Modern works, by contrast, if preserved digitally, will be preserved in amber for future generations. Forever. Without going through the winnowing process. Without any democratic process on the part of the public.
At a rough guess, if I read a book a week for the rest of my life, I will manage another 2,500. There are so many great books in the world, in different languages, from different ages, that there is literally a work of genius for every week of the rest of my life. Why would I want to waste my time reading something that had not been road-tested?
Think of past generations modding-up a book, so that it survives a century, or more. The more mods, the higher up the list the book climbs. Shouldn't we start at the top of the list, and work down?
The Library of Alexandra contained many great, now lost works. Of the ninety plays of Sophocles, only eight or so survive. Would the world be any different if we had all ninety? Should not our best guarantee of the superiority of his surviving plays be that they were copied, and stored at other locations, and the others were not? Is it any surprise that so many books from the classical period are works of genius? They are the survivors.
I realise this is all sacrilege. Perhaps I am worried that future generation will have trouble finding our best work, and think that sit coms are the best we had to offer.


Stewart Wills said...

Great post, Chris. Sometimes it does indeed seem that we're being overwhelmed with content in this digital age -- without large enough digital shovels to dig through it all and find the gold!

ChrisHughes said...

Thanks Stewart. I suppose the problem with my argument is that SOMEONE needs to read today's material, to give the best stuff some good reviews.