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This is Not the End of the Book
This is Not the End of the Book by Umberto Eco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book is basically a recorded conversation between Eco and Carriere about several things, the chief of which is the head tree version of the book. My thinking going into this was that electronic books is definitely the future, and that all the books should exist digitally, which I truly believed to be its most refined form. Storing books in plain text file, free from silly constraints of requiring specialized software like PDF reader to get to the heart of the matter. What’s more pure than plain text files?

However, the authors’ points have merit and changed my way of thinking about long-term storage of books. One of the most incisive observation was Carriere’s “There’s nothing more ephemeral than long-term media formats.” I strongly opposed this statement at first. In the first place, there’s something to be said about storing data digitally, and having the flexibility to reprint it in any form, including, yes, a book. The data can be pure text, and even though I dislike proprietary viewers as a means of long-term storage, the PDF format is defined clearly enough, lived in public domain long enough to warrant competent implementation of views to guarantee long-term archival purposes. And the cloud. Oh the cloud. Imagine being able to recall any (any!) book in its best fidelity anytime and virtually anywhere you have a connected mobile device. How is that ephemeral?

However, Carriere mentioned an example of a director friend of his who stocks his basement with old computers and machinery just to see films/footage recorded on media no modern devices can use anymore. The disks and tapes and cards and all manner of obsolte storage technology, with valuable digital data trapped inside with no other way to safely retrieve them. Also about data store on archaic CD-ROMS, once held as ‘the’ ‘permanent’ storage needs. Loaded on it programs that can no longer run on modern computers.

Sobering. He’s right. Imagine a global catastrophe like nuclear war or the flu epidemic, wiping out access to electricity (this scenario is laughably easy to arrive at, given that we’ve seen proofs of how fragile the supply chain is when hit with an emergency). What good is streams of bits then?

In this scenario, the book is clearly superior. “The book is like a spoon: once invented, it cannot be bettered.” Eco may not be wrong here.

What I felt is that leaving everything as a physical book is terribly… inefficient. But total reliance on digital formats is not the answer either. Therefore there should be complementary efforts to have these two formats exist together. The constant debates to land on one side or the other is ultimately pointless. What we need is to perfect the content representation technology (and PDFs are not the solution long-term), store it in the most OS-agnostic, system-agnostic manner possible and propagate it over a redundant, highly available cloud infrastructure that’s not government or corporate-owned. And this alongside libraries or archives working to preserve significant physical works for the future generations.

Works to digitize existing works mustn’t stop. This is the only way to spread knowledge and ideas otherwise trapped in books held only by either the fortunate or the privileged.

This book also talks about how culture is a form of censorship or natural filtering. Too much data like what we have today is as damaging as not having enough data. There are many books mentioned by great classical works that never survived to the present day. There’s no way to know if these works are as good as it is claimed to be, or are the ones we have truly the best of the best.

Eco and Carriere spent a lot of time talking about incunabulum, which roughly a book published in the 15th century, a kind of ancient book or manuscript. They touch on their collecting habits, which is enormous and obviously worth a tidy sum.

They also touched on all the books they’ve’ purchased but not read. It doesn’t bother them, obviously. “I haven’t read of these books. Why would I keep them otherwise?” was one response to a question by a visitor asking if they’ve read all the books in their fearsome library.

Overall, a good book to meditate on. The memories of both men as they cite example after example of obscure books and authors and films and directors is very impressive. And not all in their native languages too. True intellectuals.

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