It wasn’t that long ago – relatively, at least – where books themselves were considered somewhat magical. Or at least their contents word.
For thousands of years, those that could read had access to all of the knowledge of the past and could transmit that to the present.
Books were expensive, needed to be written and copied by hand, and few people could read them.
Literacy was a rare thing until the Industrial Revolution, so even if you had a book in your possession, it might not be of any use to you.
And if it was a book for learned people, it would be in Latin or Greek anyway, so good luck with that.
Every now and then it pops into my head how incredible it would be to tell someone from a century or three back how common reading and books are. Even after Gutenberg and his printing press, literacy wasn’t common if the printed page was.
We have stories of the newspapers surrounding the French Revolution – about 225 years ago – of people huddled around while one person read the stories for the rest to hear.
The sheer variety of writing one person has access to would blow their minds. In the early days of print, when it was expensive and rare, it was the Bible. Later on, other classic texts were printed.
Now, I can have Arthur Miller and Shakespeare on one shelf, and below it a collection of Tom Clancy and James Patterson novels. All cheap and accessible and ready to read whenever I want.
I can carry with me my everyday book – whatever I’m currently reading cover-to-cover – and keep two or three in my car, just in case I forget at home that main book.
I’ve lost more books than some medieval peasants ever saw in their entire lives. Maybe more than several generations of one family would have.
And the amount of text available on the internet, with just the right key stroke and search terms – forget it. Even people from two generations ago probably couldn’t believe it.
Of course everyone knows a physical book always will trump an ebook, if not in price, convenience or availability then certainly in quality of experience.
Besides, as far as a record goes, the ebook can disappear too easily. A mistake while typing without saving can erase a draft, or a library on a phone can disappear with the phone if it reaches its point of planned obsolescence. And if stored in a remote location, it’s just a series of ones and zeros.
If the world were to ever suffer a loss of civilization from some sort of global catastrophe – and, if we’re going with Anton Chekhov’s theory that if a gun appears on stage, it has to go off by the end of the play, then wiping out society isn’t a matter of if, but when – then those ones and zeros would go, too. They otherwise would require an active upkeep to continue.
A trove of physical books, stashed in a trunk in the middle of nowhere before the bombs fell or the plague spread, would be spared. Or at least one would be somewhere. No one will find a Kindle with a dead battery and have the tools to recreate civilization.
Of course, with all the availability of text and all varieties that are there, what are the odds books would be useful? A copy of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” would make for a great read, but it provides no practical skills such as agriculture or engineering. It doesn’t even have any good spells in it, for all of the magic in the story.
That’s a way of looking at things that only came about after the Industrial Revolution though: How useful is it? That’s barely a step away from trying to find worth in monetary terms. Of course, a play about a bunch of teenagers going into the woods and hallucinating about fairies isn’t going to have practical worth. It won’t help you build a bridge or sow a field.
But at the end of the day, after you’ve put in your time to feed, clothe and shelter your family and loved ones, sometimes the silly, impractical things are the best. Fun little stories about fairies and magic are a nice escapism from the drudgery of daily life.
It’s something that will probably never go away.
As long as people can read, and we never stop teaching the next generation, there always will be a place for stories, no matter what else happens around us or to the rest of world.