Can books be forever?

I’ve started reading The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World, a book I enjoyed very much. (How did they come up with a price of $9.43 for the Kindle edition of this thing?  Did someone just pick a number out of a hat?)

The Swerve is about the discovery, at the dawn of the Renaissance, of a long-forgotten copy of the great poem De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”) by the ancient Roman writer Lucretius, who otherwise would have been totally lost to history.  The book has a lot to say about science and religion, which you may have noticed are topics of some interest to me.  But for now I just want to talk about how it relates to my post “Is the Internet Forever?”

Greenblatt talks about how few books have come down to us from the ancient Greek and Roman world.  And, until some manuscript fragments were found at Herculaneum (next door to Pompeii), all we had were copies:

Apart from the charred papyrus fragments recovered in Herculaneum, there are no surviving contemporary manuscripts from the ancient Greek and Roman world.  Everything that has reached us is a copy, most often very far removed in time, place, and culture from the original. And these copies represent only a small portion of the works even of the most celebrated writers of antiquity.

Depressing.  Greenblatt recounts the sacking of the great Library at Alexandria by Christian mobs in the early fifth century.  This is also the subject of the really fine movie Agora, which pretty much disappeared in the US.  (What genius thought a movie that presented Christians as a bunch of crazed book-burners would be a box-office winner in this country?)

Anyway, this brings us to a guy I used to work with named Brewster Kahle.  He subsequently made a lot of money at a startup and is using it to digitally preserve old web sites and lots of other stuff at  Now, the New York Times reports, he wants to save physical books as well.  So he has a huge warehouse in California where he hopes to collect 10 million physical items, mostly discarded from libraries or personal collections–just in case.

“We must keep the past even as we’re inventing a new future,” [Kahle] said. “If the Library of Alexandria had made a copy of every book and sent it to India or China, we’d have the other works of Aristotle, the other plays of Euripides. One copy in one institution is not good enough.”

Is Brewster nuts?  Some people quoted in the article don’t sound especially enthusiastic about his project.  But it seems to me there are worse ways to spend your Internet millions.  Lucretius would probably think so, too.

7 thoughts on “Can books be forever?

  1. It’s a good idea. A good supplemental idea would be to save electronic copies, in multiple formats, in a hundred locations around the globe, with multiple forms of hardware backup, and physical instructions on how to retrieve the information if the tech fails. Chips in crypts, deep in the
    Earth, with a priesthood to guard them. Hey, maybe they could do dual duty guarding spent fuel rods.

    Plus one site in high orbit, and another on the Moon.

    Updates would be a bitch, though.


  2. Excellent. I volunteer to found the priesthood. just give me a week to pack my bags and get some recruits; I’ll start next Tuesday.


  3. Pingback: Why do books have typos? | richard bowker

  4. It’s not true that there are “no surviving manuscripts from the ancient Greek and Roman world” other than the Herculaneum papyri. Hundreds (probably many thousands) of papyrus fragments, some of them quite extensive, were preserved in the hot dry conditions of Egypt, and only began to be discovered and published in the late 19th century. There is so much of this material that quite a lot of it hasn’t yet been gone through in any serious way. Bacchylides and Menander are examples of two classical Greek authors who were nothing but names in modern times until some of their works reemerged in papyri excavated in Egypt. Whole plays and poems have survived in this way; also letters, business records, and various other miscellanea. It could also be pointed out that a book like the Codex Bembinus of Terence (now in the Vatican Library, I think) qualifies as a book from antiquity: it dates from the 4th or 5th century, but that’s still Late Antiquity. It’s surprising that a humanities professor at Harvard should make such a mistake. There seemed to be some other confusions in the quoted passage, but I thought this was the most important.


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