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The Thing About Books

By Ron Baker

I wonder what we think of books nowadays.

Or more rightly, what has become of the process of writing a book.

Millennia ago the stories would end up on walls. We are never that excited when our kids put their stories on walls. But back then, the hieroglyphics (such a great name for pictures that served as the alphabet) were etched in stone or whatever else composed the wall. The stories live on.

As time went on, writing pads of various kinds emerged. Papyrus was used – sort of like turning over a new leaf every time you turned the page. Over time, scrolls were processed by using other weaves of various plant based ingredients.

And then there was the leather writing tablet. The skins were finely pressed and cleaned so that you could write on the leather. The stories could easily be rolled up and carried wherever you were going.

But scrolls and leather deteriorated. Very strict climate controls were required to see these mediums survive over centuries. Even as we moved into the day and age of other fibre based products (such as wood) and natural “glue” type of qualities (such as rice) the “papers” needed constant care.

In our day and age, the archival community promoted acid-free paper. In order to create paper quickly acid was used to break down the wood/pulp used in the paper making process. Of course, acid doesn’t stop breaking things down just because you create a product. Acid left in the paper meant after a time the paper continued to disintegrate and the writings disappeared.

And now there is the ebook. With ebooks, there is no tangible presence of rock, paper or scrolls.

I remember discussing in library school decades ago the trouble with digital storage. Storing a book of electronic digits means standardizing the ability to read the digits. We have had the cassette tape, the CD, the flash drive and hard drives. These mediums require a software program of some type to extract the bytes and bits of data from the storage device.

I don’t know if you’ve tried to figure out computers lately. The hardware continues to evolve. But the interesting part is the software. I grew up before C programming. Which means I watched original computers evolve from massive sealed rooms to tiny chips placed in all sorts of utensils, cabinets and appliances. I used a word processing program that is now defunct. If I were to try to retrieve some of my writing masterpieces from back then, I would have to search for a long time to find a machine which could decipher the files I created back then.

Of course the advantage of digital is space. I can carry a full library of thousands of volumes in a briefcase or backpack. With the cloud, I don’t even have to carry anything other than my computer – and I have the world’s books at my fingertips. Until my battery runs out or power grids fail.

I am thankful for quick access and incredible search capabilities that the electronic age has afforded us. I use them constantly! I want that to continue as I read for both pleasure and work.

But, . . . in the back of my mind I just wish that I didn’t have to depend on electrical and magnetic forces to control my reading pleasure. What happens when the world goes dark??

The saying may need to be revived as we consider the books of the future – “Let’s rock it!”

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