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Oh, the irony

June 16, 2011

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The irony of the following events has not escaped my notice:

  1. The hard drive on my 8-month-old Mac took a short walk off a tall cliff.
  2. I attended the Printer’s Row Lit Fest.
  3. Federer lost to Nadal in the finals of the French Open. Again.

If you figure in the fact that these things all happened within hours of each other, the irony jumps up a level. I mean, clearly my preoccupation with my dead hard drive resulted in a lack of concentration on the match that led Federer to choke once again in the face of Nadal’s steely-eyed gaze on the clay courts. And the fact that I didn’t have my computer properly backed up is almost laugh-inducing when faced with a big city festival celebrating all things analog.

(I know, I know. I should have backed up my computer properly, and my predicament is my own fault. Please, don’t rub it in.)

As I was wandering around the festival, my ailing computer installed with a new hard drive in my bag, the differences between the analog and digital could not be more clear. However wonderful digital artifacts are, for accessibility or for easy of use, they do not carry the same kind of tangible history. A book, though it might be used, torn, or damaged, has a certain longevity that a digital object does not. You can’t hold an ebook in your hand and wonder who owned that book, where it lived, why it smells vaguely of vanilla frosting, what the owner loved or hated about it. You can’t wonder about these things because they are attached to a physical object, and that physical object these days is a Kindle, or a laptop, or an iPad. You can’t wonder what that strange brown blob is on page 49 or why page 233 is bent in half. I love that I can have all of my music at my fingertips the second I want it through my iTunes library, but what you can’t see is the handwritten playlist, the cracked CD case, or notes in sharpie on the cover. For me, the allure of the books at the festival is not the books themselves, but the imagination they spark.

I love my computer. I love digital media. The look on my face when I realized that I permanently lost some important documents can attest to this. But can anything compare to the almost reverent experience of handling a carefully bound, well-loved piece of history in the form of a book?

Can we feel that way about digital objects? My attachment to my computer is getting a little bit out of hand, but what is my computer with a dead hard drive, without the information contained within it? The computer itself is a disposable shell for information. It is meant to be disposable in a way that books (up until recent years) are not. In 100 years will the dings on the case of my laptop spark the same kind of imagination as a gouge in the cover of a book? Is a laptop without a hard drive comparable to the cover of a book without it’s pages? I am attached to the information contained within my laptop, not to the laptop itself. At the festival, I found myself thinking that the opposite is true for books. I don’t care nearly as much about the exact information contained within the book as what the book represents in terms of the time in which it was written, the person or people who owned it, and how it got here.

I don’t mean for this to be a love song to books. I guess the question I’m wrestling with is whether or not the digital can ever have the same soul, or the same emotional heft and certainty as the analog. Maybe I’m just creating false nostalgia out of a traumatic experience.

I wonder what you all think about the difference between digital and analog. In 100 years will people browse a festival full of old computers and  create meaning out of old laptops or will they find that the computers are nothing without their accompanying information? I figure that, as with all things, it depends. Feel free to chime in with examples in the comments. I’m curious to hear what you all think.

From the Department of Random but Related:

If you happen to have some free time and a dearth of books headed to the dumpster, you might consider giving them new life, never mind the irony of buying a book on making things with books.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tyson permalink
    June 17, 2011 8:06 pm

    Meggan, please tell me you’ve encountered a book that smells vaguely of vanilla frosting. There’s got to be a story there.

    • June 17, 2011 8:39 pm

      I have encountered a book that smells more than vaguely like vanilla frosting. It was a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child that came through the AADL. It was sticky on the outside but I couldn’t bear to clean it off because it smelled too good. I made everyone in the back room smell it and then I put it (dirty) out to be shelved for the next patron to enjoy.

      • Tyson permalink
        June 24, 2011 6:42 pm

        That’s beyond awesome.


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