Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A place for books

Call me a Luddite.

The news story I posted from 2001 the other day was actually my second choice for a post. What I really wanted to do was reprint the column I wrote not long after, expanding on the thoughts expressed by the man who tried to circulate a petition supporting something called the Constitutional Rights Clarification Amendment.

The problem was, I couldn't find that old column. It may be on the hard drive of the home computer I was using in 2001, which is in a storage container. But it's apparently not anywhere on the Internet anymore, because the Great and Powerful Google couldn't deliver it to me. No doubt it's preserved on paper somewhere, although I can't find a printout - but there are collections of the defunct Green Bay News-Chronicle here and there that must have the original column.

A lot of stuff stored on computers 10-20-25 years ago is pretty tough to retrieve. It's not common to find a device anymore than will read a 5 1/4" floppy disk of data generated on a Commodore 128. If you didn't make a hard copy, it may be as good as lost forever.

This compatibility issue is at the root of why I'm reluctant to give up paper and books - you know, those information storage devices made out of dead trees. I don't need a certain software or hardware or any electronic device to read things I wrote in 1972 - I just need to find those notebooks and use my eyes. The pen or pencil or typing on paper still works just as well as it did then.

Last week I attempted to take Seth Godin up on his offer of a new, free book: The Flinch by Julien Smith. The catch: The book is only available via Kindle.

I don't have a Kindle, nor do I currently have the money to buy a Kindle. No problem – there are free programs that allow you to read Kindle ebooks on your computer. Except that Kindle for Mac only works on computers equipped with a later Mac OS system than mine, and I don't currently have the money to upgrade. My only options to obtain this "free" ebook, it seems, involves spending money I don't have.

I would be more than willing to spend $5-$10 for a book that can be read 200 years from now, but I'm less inclined to spend $80-$100 to buy software or hardware that will obsolete in less than 10, so that I can have the same book for free. The first thing I usually do when I download an ebook is to print out a hard copy so that I know I will always have it.

We're talking about the storage of ideas and information. One technology (print) has proved to be fairly reliable for centuries. The other (digital) is constantly evolving, and ideas and information published with earlier versions are constantly becoming harder to access. As a result I believe hard copies will be important for a long time to come.

J. Paul Getty is credited with giving the advice, "Watch what the herd does ... and do the opposite." My observation is that the herd is abandoning paper and rushing from electronic toy to electronic toy. That's why I'm more convinced than ever that books are a better long-term investment.

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