Book burning--book banning--is generally viewed as a harbinger of evil in our society, past and present. Whether it's an historical account or an imagined future world, most of us shudder at the thought of a society in which information and ideas are torn from our hands, in which the thoughts of the past or the facts of history or daring newborn ideas are concealed from us.
Even in the direst of futuristic visions, books were forcibly removed, destroyed, forbidden. In the real world, we're giving them away.
This thought has been playing in the back of my mind for some time, but it bubbled to the surface this past week when Amazon deleted copies of two George Orwell novels previously purchased by Kindle owners across the United States. Sure, Amazon had a reason for deleting the "books". Sure, Amazon said it would never do it again. But isn't the real issue that they were ABLE?
I've resisted the move toward readers like Kindle for a reason entirely unrelated to the future of our society: I love books. I like the look and feel of them. I like to hold them in my hands. I like the texture of paper and to watch the size of the chunk of pages behind the bookmark diminish as I work my way through a novel. I simply don't WANT to read a digital copy. But there's another, much more significant reason to resist that move--one that unfortunately seems not to have occurred to most of those on board with the "progress" that is a shift toward electronic books.
Imagine that today, some powerful entity decided to do away with the ideas set forth in George Orwell's 1984. Eradicating the novel would be a huge, probably insurmountable job. Physical copies exist in huge numbers, in multiple languages, in countries around the world. And, of course, no one really knows who has all those books...and if we did know, it wouldn't be especially useful information because a book can be easily hidden or handed off. Books are resold, donated, and recycled every day. Some are undoubtedly thrown away; others are destroyed inadvertantly. Even if we knew who had purchased every single copy of the book ever printed--which we don't--that wouldn't mean we knew where they were now, or even how many still existed.
In short, eradicating an existing book in print (particularly a popular one) would be virtually impossible.
Eradicating the Kindle copies of two well-known novels was apparently relatively quick and easy. Today, that's an inconvenience, an outrage to some, a bad move in customer relations terms. But today, Kindle is just beginning to take root. Today, most of us still have the books we treasure safe on our shelves at home, and it would be difficult for someone to make them disappear.
20 or 30 or 40 years from now, when we've all "caught up with the times" and there aren't any of those clunky, old-fashioned paper books lying around, will someone make all of our "books"--all of our history and information and ideas--disappear with the click of whatever has replaced the mouse in that future-world?