“I conceive a knowledge of books is the basis upon which other knowledge is to be built.” — George Washington
Letter to Jonathan Boucher (July 9th, 1771)
Can we truly afford to lose the books we’ve grown up with, the books which have not transitioned from paper format into the digital age? I believe we cannot.
Life is filled with changes. As I prepare for a streamlined life, I have to look through my library to see what can be transferred onto digital format and what can be replaced in time. The curse of books leaving print seems such a waste to me. Books fall from the shelves of public libraries and bookstores to be forgotten. Seasons pass, and the rich foundation of the current selection of literature has been swept away. While we do see the touch of books which missed being named as literary classics in our current offerings, even the classics are missing from digital and in-print catalogues.
For example, one of my favorite resource books, Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.’s Comma Sutra, has been a reliable grammar guide for me for years. I was fortunate to trip over it in the mid-2000s, and this small book (published in 2005) brought an amusing and snarky take on grammar. More approachable than Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Dr. Rozakis’s charming little hardbound has opportunities to practice grammar. It’s only ten years since publication, and it’s nowhere to be found except at used book dealers online and potentially at used independent bookstores. What’s sadder is that it’s not even mentioned as one of Dr. Rozakis’s publications in her Wikipedia article. I had to research to make sure she was the same Dr. Rozakis, and she is. Comma Sutra is truly a lost book.
I purchased Comma Sutra online, used, for a budding writer who found grammar dry and unapproachable. This little book worked when Strunk and White’s “classic” did not. I think of all of the books out currently which make grammar approachable to tomorrow’s published writers, and I wonder what will become of those books in ten years.
What’s worse is that novels fare far worse.
Roger Zelazny, I consider, was a science fiction and fantasy master. I met him, decades ago at a convention, not long before he died. He won six Hugo awards and three Nebula awards. Mind you, one of my other favorite authors, Ray Bradbury was nominated for Hugo awards yet never won. He doesn’t appear to ever have been nominated for even one Nebula award, despite the Nebula award for best script being renamed for him.
Many of Bradbury’s works are still in print and have been moved to digital format (despite his reticence in life to have them in digital format). Most, if not all, of Zelazny’s works are lost.
If this can happen to a master, a once-beloved writer, then what fate awaits for those who never reach that pinnacle of recognition and success?
Paradise (and Books) Regained
How do we do it? Can we as readers do more than simply hold these treasures precious to us?
Publishers are still the primary gatekeepers and individuals are still the guardians of the books we don’t want to see disappear. Though we are looking at millions of books available worldwide to us per year (reprint and new), future readers lose access to books which were fundamental to understanding certain decades. What was put out–even poor-quality publications–reflect their times.
I have no answers, but I hope that others concerned will band together and come up with solutions to preserve the precious knowledge which is being lost. We have seen some wonderful solutions, like Project Gutenberg, bring books back from the tomb. With a collection of more than 46,000 books and over twice that many through it and its affiliates, Project Gutenberg has shown that books don’t need to be lost to time.
May we, as readers, find a way to keep the books printed in our own lifetimes from being lost like autumn leaves, buried and forgotten as seasons pass.