It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
I recently re-read a novel Arabella by Georgette Heyer, a delightful historical romance by one of my favorite writers. The novel was published in 1949, but my paperback edition was printed in 1972, almost 50 years ago. The book is a bit yellow with age but still in a pretty good condition. If I want to re-read it in 10 or 20 years, I have no doubt I’ll be able to.
As I held it in my hands, I wondered: what would happen to my books on Kindle, to any Kindle file, 50 years from now? Would the files still exist? Would any device 50 years into the future be able to read the surviving files? For that matter, what about 20 years into the future? Or even five?
My old Kindle started to misbehave last year, and my son bought me a new Kindle last Christmas. I was happy until I wanted to re-read one of my old Kindle books and discovered that the new device didn’t recognize the old file. Mind you, only four years old. After further investigation, I learned to my horror that my new Kindle couldn’t read 80% of my old Kindle books. I had to call Amazon and ask them to replace all my books, but I haven’t checked whether they did it or not. For now, I’m sticking to paper books.
Same thing happened to music. In the last half-century, there were vinyl records, audio tapes, CDs, and what-nots. They’ve all become obsolete, together with the devices to read them. But the sheet music, written on paper, has persisted for centuries.
I shudder to think what might happen if the paper books are pushed out of circulation. It hasn’t happened yet, but the signs are here that my favorite format, mass-market paperback, is being driven to extinction. Too expensive to produce, they say.
The problem is: a digital file is ephemeral. We can still read some ancient writing on clay tablets thousands of years after the writers died. What will our descendants read, thousands of years from now, if many of our books now exist only in digital format? We might lose the entire generation of self-published writers, because they opted to publish their books in digital format only. After all, a digital book is often much cheaper than paper, to produce and to buy, much more affordable to our readers.
Addendum: There is an interesting article in LitHub on the deteriorating condition of all books printed on wood-sourced paper, but it is a slow process, much slower than digital files getting obsolete these days. We need to think about preserving our libraries, public and personal, but we still have time. Our paper books, even the ones published 100 years ago, are still readable. Fortunately.
What do you think?