Recently I watched the film “V for Vendetta.” The movie is set in an authoritarian future, and dangerous books and artwork have long ago been eliminated from people’s lives. But V, the hero who is resisting the authoritarians, has an underground home filled with books and art that he has “rescued” from the censors’ vaults. Seeing the books piled high in one of the rooms, I was reminded of the importance of hard copies.
When information is digital, access to it can be taken away very easily. For example, if you own an e-reader, you don’t really own the books on it. The Kindle Store user agreement makes that very clear: “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.” Amazon can remove a book from your device at any time.
Ironically, the premier example of this so far are some George Orwell books. The person who uploaded them for sale on Amazon did not own the copyright. When Amazon realized the error in 2009, those books just disappeared from the Kindles of the people who thought they’d purchased the books. And there was no notice or explanation from Amazon.
Maybe this seems insignificant now, but if at some future point we have an authoritarian government, any books that that government disliked could be disappeared at the stroke of a button. It’s not so easy to collect and burn every book.
I like reading on my Kindle; I like the convenience of looking up words and making notes onscreen. It’s nice being able to pack just one small device that holds multiple books when I travel. It’s nice not having to dust more books on my bookshelves. Yet understanding the importance of hard copies makes me resolve to keep buying physical books.
This Mark Fiore cartoon illustrates the importance of another object that is being made obsolete by our new devices: printed maps. Who needs to worry about carrying maps when you can just use your GPS or pull up the map on your phone? But devices and Internet connections fail, and if you’re out in the wilderness that failure can be fatal.