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Commentary: By the book isn't necessarily what's expected

An odd confluence of events has me pondering the future of a technological marvel that in a lot of ways makes possible the celebration of independence we U.S. citizens proudly enjoy this week.

The coming Independence Day celebration, combined with the passing in June of the prophetic science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, got me thinking about books. Though Bradbury is best known for, and probably will be longest remembered for, having penned "Fahrenheit 451," which I'll get to in a minute or so, his "The Martian Chronicles" actually got me thinking about books.

For those unfamiliar, "The Martian Chronicles" lays out a scenario wherein Mars is colonized by we earth folk, who promptly turn it into what we were trying to get away from. It's kind of a parable for the future of an American way that moves to the country to get away from the city but insists on bringing the comforts of the city along. With the comforts come the problems. This novel also features the frightening theme of nuclear devastation.

What set me thinking, though, was a detail within the novel related to the original inhabitants of Mr. Bradbury's fictional Mars. The native Martians are gone by the end of the Chronicles, having been largely wiped out by the invaders from earth. These Martians, however, had a fairly advanced culture that included access to books, but not books as we knew them back in the 1950s when Mr. Bradbury was in his writing prime, or 20 years later in the 1970s when I was reading his stuff. The books of the native Martians were delicate electronic devices that seemed to be as much absorbed and felt as read by those who enjoyed them.

In short, it seems Mr. Bradbury foresaw the invention of electronic tablet reading devices. I did say he was prophetic, didn't I?

No doubt Thomas Jefferson, who had a hand in the document dated July 4, 1776, would have found fascinating these fanciful Martian devices envisioned by Mr. Bradbury and put into production by the computer corporations of our day. A portable book that reduces the weight of many volumes to less than that of a short novel or political treatise would have been a remarkable convenience for a guy like Mr. Jefferson. A notorious collector of books, he traveled with boxes of them in an era when such an extravagance was terribly expensive.

His collection of books was bequeathed to the young republic he helped establish and became the kernel of what we now know as the Library of Congress. For Jefferson, it was something of a matter of practicality. Without access to the materials he and others drew upon in founding the nation — namely the works in the private Jefferson library — how would the next generation acquire the necessary background to shepherd a growing republic?

Which brings me to my dilemma about the modern version of the book as foretold by Mr. Bradbury. These devices are extraordinarily convenient, and they have the potential to bring many an idea to a wider audience, in much the same way printed books and the ideas contained therein became available to a much wider audience after the invention of movable type. It seems to be hardly a coincidence that movable type came into being at the end of the so-called Dark Ages.

The thing about electronic books, convenient though they may be, that makes me wary of them is the fragility of electronic files, and the ease with which a strictly electronic book could be changed, in every version, by someone who doesn't like what it says. We humans have a strange desire, on occasion, to try to change history by changing what is written about it. Attempts to excise purged persons from official histories of the Soviet Union looked silly because original versions of history could still be found in print. It isn't hard to imagine, however, the innocuous computer update messages we all receive from time to time being used to revise chapters in electronic books.

Printed versions provide a level of insurance against such things, though it would be necessary to have more than a few on hand so they're readily accessible and not subject to localized disaster. There is reason to believe, after all, that the advancement of civilization was set back possibly many generations by a fire that destroyed the ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt, which had been the sole repository for much of the western world's knowledge in its day.

Which brings us back to Mr. Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," the novel whose name is the temperature at which books burn.

When it first came on the market a few years back, the first of the Martian book devices was named Kindle, which is how you start a fire. Presumably the fire to be started was the fire of knowledge to be set ablaze in a new generation of readers. More recently, the next round of Kindle electronic book readers was christened Fire, presumably a play on the success of the original round of reader devices.

It was this designation, however, coupled with the vision of an electronic device burning up any need for printed books, that gave me cause for pause. A more sinister, though likely unintended interpretation of the Kindle-Fire names is a kind of book burning that we unknowingly welcome, thinking it's a leap forward. Unfortunately, if it comes to pass that physical manifestations of ideas, stories and records are no longer available, a blow to modern civilization could be brought about that would make the Alexandria Library fire look like a candle.

An unforeseen electronic pulse resulting from natural forces within the earth, or a solar flare, has the potential to wipe out a lot of electronic records. And there is the very real threat of sinister forces eliminating, or substantially changing, key works with a few keystrokes and a well-composed hacking program. Without hard copy backups, everything from the plays of Shakespeare to the musings of Ben Franklin to the Holy Bible would have the potential of being changed to suit the whims of those with high levels of access or the ability to gain high levels of access.

Seems to me it said, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," but when I checked the electronic Bible, it said, "Love thy neighbor, except when your leader says otherwise." A frightening thought.

For now, we're safe from a future where the record of the past is easily changed because printed materials are still very much in demand. It's fun to read something on a Kindle, but it's hard to get it autographed. And for some of us there's something satisfying about possessing the ink and paper that contain the ideas we have absorbed.

Still, before we abandon ink on paper on the grounds that it is as out of date and useless as a buggy whip, we'd do well to remember another tool of the buggy whip era: the penknife. No one uses penknives to sharpen the quills of birds for writing anymore, but just about everyone owns a penknife of some sort. There's something profoundly useful about Swiss Army knives and their like that made them appealing in Jefferson's day, and has kept them around well into the age of the ballpoint pen and beyond the age of the typewriter.

Not every old technology is obsolete.

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