The Library Of Babel Meets Fahrenheit 451
Today the New York Times informs us that in California someone is building an archive that will supposedly hold, when it is completed, every single book published in the 20th Century. The Times says:
In a wooden warehouse in this industrial suburb, the 20th century is being stored in case of digital disaster.
Forty-foot shipping containers stacked two by two are stuffed with the most enduring, as well as some of the most forgettable, books of the era. Every week, 20,000 new volumes arrive, many of them donations from libraries and universities thrilled to unload material that has no place in the Internet Age. …
“We want to collect one copy of every book,” said Brewster Kahle, who has spent $3 million to buy and operate this repository situated just north of San Francisco. “You can never tell what is going to paint the portrait of a culture.”
Evidently, the Library of Congress, and the huge libraries of world’s colleges and universities won’t be up to the seemingly important task of preserving all the books of the past century. Even if they limit themselves to those in English. Just why all these books deserve to be saved is another impossible question to ponder. I spare you a recitation of a long list of entirely forgettable titles of no conceivable importance to anyone. But don't take my word for this. Visit any one of the big box bookstores and ask yourself, "How many of these books deserve to be preserved forever?" Ask yourself about the many books you won't even take off the shelf and open.
Is what is being built in California really just a physical documentation of the crassness and stupidity of the publishing industry? Isn't it as if the collection will merely demonstrate with its great heft how concentration in the publishing industry eventually destroyed the value, the quality, the diversity of books?
So now we have a very bizarre, very large collection of books (and now films and records and digitized books and who knows what else) growing in California. It’s as if something like Borges’s Library of Babel were the only available hedge against Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It's as if preserving many books with no value somehow assured the viability of the very rare important ones.
The thought of my two novels sitting in one of those trailers in the warehouse in California with thousands of other books doesn't exactly warm my heart. I think I completely accept the idea that within decades nobody at all will remember either of my books. I would be shocked if they did. And I don't see why, if their being forgotten is acceptable to me and those who read them, they should physically be preserved.