Jon, Jim, Marcia, and tomorrow, guest blogger Jennifer have all done a fine job in writing about the Constitution this week, in honor of Constitution Day, which will be observed on Friday, but is actually on September 17. I got to thinking about what I might write. Some time ago, Jim wrote a piece entitled Why A Written Constitution is Important. It’s good stuff and not at all what I’m going to write about here, so go ahead and read his piece, if you haven’t.
No, I’ve been thinking about the concept of the word “written.” In my day job, like many people, I deal with the “oh so editable” computer-generated and stored typed word. In this brave new world we live in, we are inundated with loads of information, and most of it is, frankly, garbage. Still, amidst the thousands of tweets about what someone had for breakfast, there are countless books, newspaper articles and historical documents as well.
I enjoy reading books in just about any form except on a computer screen. I’ve read them on my Kindle, on the iPad using the Kindle App, and on iBooks. It’s pretty nice to be able to look things up while you’re reading, and making notes and highlighting text is handy too. Of course, here at WWTFT, we are fortunate to get LOTS of books from publishers in the more traditional format of hardback and paperback as well. I like books, but sometimes my wife wonders where we are going to put them all. Each time I bring home a stack, newly arrived from Penguin, De Capo, Basic, or another publisher, I wonder if it might be better if they’d send me electronic versions of the books. But alas, those are harder to lend and share with the other authors here. And, I have to admit, there is something indescribably nice about a physical copy of a book.
And so, this made me wonder about the future of books in general. As we rush pell-mell into the digital age with access to untold quantities of information literally at our fingertips, it’s hard to fathom all of the opportunities now at our disposal. For example, archive.org has years and years of the Niles Weekly Register, from its inception in 1810 onward, scanned-in at high resolution, available for anyone to read online with their beautiful user interface. There are thousands of public domain books, some long out of print, available as well. Amazon and Apple have loads more. Many of these materials would have been nearly inaccessible just a few years ago, but are now available for anyone with an interest. Google, of course, has its own collection of everything from the Congressional record to its own set of obscure out of print books. Then there are online databases, accessible through university libraries where you can find fascinating dissertations (and really boring ones as well). Now researchers may not have to travel to distant archives to access the papers of George Washington, or of other early Americans.
The benefits of all of this information are manifestly obvious and fantastic in their scope. This is a good thing. However, is there a downside?
While we are constantly cautioned that Google stores everything, I wonder, for how long, and in what form? Thanks to the care and forethought of James Madison and Stephen Pleasanton, (they saved the founding documents from being destroyed when the British burnt Washington in the War of 1812) we can look at the original copy of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and see what the Founders had to say. Similarly, we can visit a library if we desire, and read the indelibly written words of many an author. What if there were no books? What if all that was required to change history was to modify a few bytes in an electronic document?
Think this is far-fetched? Compare the PBS transcript of a recent Obama speech with that of the New York times.
It has been said that the victors write the history, and while this has always been true, at least there was a version of events that wasn’t so easily amended. Somehow I think, if PBS had been responsible for saving the Constitution, and they were saving an electronic version, what we would have to look at today might be missing a few things. Inconvenient truths, if you will.
But then again, perhaps this is just an elaborate excuse to keep getting hard bound books!