Wednesday, June 24, 2009

At Last, an Iota of Sense

Roy Blount Jr. has gone and done the entirely unexpected - he has shown some common sense. Since the advent of Google Books, the Author's Guild has fluctuated from ambivalence to hysterics, managing to come off looking like a woodcut print of horse's rear in the process. When Amazon announced the Kindle 2, and the new text to speech capability, the Author's Guild sealed that image by swinging around their metaphorical billy clubs, smacking down the blind and visually impaired in an orgy of self-indulgent, grasping bleating.

Thankfully Blount ate his Cheerios today, and grew a little bit smarter. It seems that, after careful consideration, Blount has decided that scanning millions of books that are not published any more (out of print), cannot be found in any bookstore, and have disappeared entirely from the public view, and offering those up for sale, may actually be a good thing for writers. These "orphan" books, which provide no income for any party, yet are trapped by the inescapable realities of economics and copyright law (not worth printing in quantity - unavailable in the public domain) are finally getting a chance to find a new life in the minds of readers everywhere.

There are many times I have come across a writer whose works I have enjoyed, only to learn that many of their other works are unavailable. They have not been printed in ages, and unless I haunt the used book stores for a time, or search across the internet to track down an errant copy somewhere, anywhere, I am out of luck. Many, many excellent books have been published with small print runs, and have faded into obscurity, with copies being lost over the years, destroyed, or packed into little cardboard boxes, to be stored in the attic indefinitely. A literal Library of Alexandria disappears from our world with frightening regularity, and has ever since the mass printing of books began five centuries ago, but for the first time this attrition can be stopped, those lost books can be found, and new books in future can be preserved for generations yet to come.

While this may seem trivial to some if this was only about fiction, but what Google Books will do is scan everything. Biographies, memoirs, poetry collections, books on history, geography and more. This includes books from the US Civil War, or from before Confederation in Canada. Voices lost to general view may yet have a chance to resurface. In many a small town there are tiny collections in tinier museums, holding a single copy of a journal or diary from long ago. A single copy that never leaves that shelf, forever destined to be a curio looked upon by families and small groups on summer holiday, before they donate $5 to the local historical society and head out to go to Dairy Queen.

Of all the atrocities of the past, the great massacres, pogroms, and wars of extermination, I've always felt that the greatest atrocities were not what mankind did to itself, for that behavior is endemic and eternal, but what mankind does to the record of itself, to it's own mind, and capacity to rise above it's nature. The destruction of information has long been the greatest tool in the arsenal of every tyrannical regime that has existed throughout the history of mankind. By repressing information, or limiting access to information, human bondage is assured.

If there is one thing the recent turmoil in Iran has shown, the ability to disseminate information is the one weapon every repressive regime fears. When the information disappears, and the messages are destroyed, those voices disappear, and the cycle of repression, violence and lies is free to continue again.

But if a way can be found, to keep those voices alive, to record them permanently, for posterity, then that can only be a good thing.

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