Do Books Work as Memory Theater?

Open Letters Monthly has an article called In Defense of the Memory Theater, by Nathan Schneider in which he argues that books on shelves perform the function of reflecting memories back at us.  They are a constant reminder of the various events, stages, and emotional states of our lives.  We look at our shelves and can instantly catapult ourselves back in time to events surrounding our reading of various volumes.

Schneider mentions a 16th-century memory theater that used images and symbols of the cosmos to inspire observers and enhance their intellectual powers.  Books, for Schneider, do something similar when they are visible on our shelves.  I agree up to a point.  I am often taken back in time by my own books upon their shelves.  But so am I transported by nearly every object in my home.  Objects all have this power.  Books are not exceptional in this regard.

Schneider also goes on to worry over the ongoing movement toward ebooks and electronic reading devices.  Frankly, this entire subject matter is beginning to bore me slightly.  I like reading whether it’s from a book, an e-reader or from a magazine.  But Schneider’s concerns are that corporate entities are wielding absolute control over these devices and can take things away as easily as they give them to us.  Amazon famously deleted copies of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from Kindles recently.  He also worries that all of this electronic cloud computing reliance sets up the perfect environment for totalitarian control of literature and publishing.  It certainly might.  If a book burning can be accomplished with the press of a delete button that is a very dangerous thing.

I think Schneider’s arguments about the Kindle being a catastrophe would play better if he had gotten the facts right about the device.  It is apparent to me that he has not used a Kindle yet, so it is a leap for him to write about Amazon keeping user notes and annotations in an inaccessible proprietary format when in fact the Kindle stores these things as a simple text file that can be read anywhere.  If you are going to write about e-readers you had better get your technical facts straight.

He makes the point that one’s books should last forever.  A corporation should not be able to take them away or disappear one day leaving you with a bunch of proprietary ebook files that can no longer be read.  Sure.  He’s right.  But realistically if one wants to preserve one’s proprietary ebooks, there are all sorts of hacks and conversion methods for doing that.  No one really needs to be at the mercy of a corporation where ebooks are concerned.  Hack them and save them as text files.  Simple.  Stop worrying so much.  The fact of the matter is that people don’t even want their music to last forever any more.  The forever thing is going away.  Perhaps it’s a loss.  Perhaps not.  It sure makes moving a lot easier!

There’s an enormous amount of intellectual snobbery masking a lack of technical understanding.  Mr. Schneider’s article is pretty good at making one think a little bit more about what makes books so good at what they do.  But he trips over the new publishing technology he is afraid of.