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 www.archive.org.  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.