A written word is the choicest of relics. . . . Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.
— Henry David Thoreau
A relic, minimally, is a physical object. For Thoreau, the written word meant only one thing: inscribing or printing on paper or some other physical medium. Today, in addition to being a thing, writing can occupy a more ethereal realm, existing as a coded series of ones and zeros that live a virtual life . . . where, exactly? Somewhere over the rainbow, perhaps.
Writers of a certain age, most of whom have made some kind of peace with computers, have had to adjust to the fact that what appears on their monitor has only a tenuous existence. Its status can be partially substantiated by “saving,” a process that assigns it to some storage medium, typically a hard drive or server.
But what are those things, actually? What kind of magic spectacles does one need to peer into a hard drive and discern its mysteries?
When writing went virtual, our means of describing it retained the language of print. We still create “documents” or “files,” which we store in “folders.” The illusion of physicality is enhanced by computer interfaces that give these creations a familiar appearance on the screen.
But it really is an illusion. Any writer who uses a computer has experienced the impermanence of his or her creation. Indeed, we’ve had to become armchair theologians in learning that computers, or the programs they run, can “crash” (another linguistic refuge from the world of physical objects), and when they do, anything that hasn’t been saved is lost.
Impermanence takes another, particularly devilish form when one attempts to retrieve a document created years ago using software that no longer exists. You can see the icon on your screen, but you can’t access it. Its “presence” mocks you, in a way that no missing piece of paper can.
The truth, of course, is that even printed things can be lost. Children sometimes experiment, or at least they used to, with disappearing ink. But all ink will disappear eventually. And paper deteriorates. It rots and falls apart. It crumbles in your hand.
But the very physicality of print lends its demise a certain poignancy — even drama, at times. Where would filmmakers be without the stock scene where someone strikes a match and sets fire to a piece of paper — a love letter, perhaps, or an incriminating piece of evidence. Hitting delete on a keyboard just doesn’t have the same cinematic effect.
Still, even lovers of print have to admit that it does have limitations. One compelling argument for a digital world is access. Shelf space is finite, and accessing printed materials one doesn’t own takes time and transport. But if the words one seeks are digitized, they can be summoned in an instant. Indeed, if efforts undertaken by Google reach fruition, most of the world’s extant published texts will one day be accessible by computer — or whatever we’re calling our reading machines by then.
When that day comes, will there still be room for print? Will sixth-grade students still turn in their essays on pieces of paper? Will that paper go into a box somewhere and be kept by the writer’s child or grandchild, to be retrieved decades later and held, passed around the room? Will those essays still be enshrined in newsprint and delivered to front doors?
Publishing companies are consolidating and they’re printing fewer titles. Bookstores are closing. Some newspapers have stopped publishing print editions. The written word’s days as a relic may be numbered.
But the word’s status as a fit inheritance should not be compromised by digitization. What one wrote in sixth grade should be preserved, somehow. As long as there are generations and nations, we will need to know what others have thought, and the process of wrestling those thoughts into written language must be honored and treasured.
If you’re reading these words in print, by all means recycle the paper when you’re done with it. But feel free to cut out a few things first and put them in a folder — a real one.
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