Millions of Years of Reading Material

The book, in the forms we might recognize it, has been around for a heartbeat in terms of the universe. Even now, we discuss it’s demise, as we read on our e-readers, or our phones, and the shelves of paper seem so dusty and old-fashioned. Scientists come up with even newer ways to store data – they have encoded cat videos on DNA, to sum up the absurdity of the internet in one small petri dish. They have stored data on molecules that could endure for millions of years (at least, theoretically, none of them having proved that hypothesis).

Just like the storage of data on other mediums, though, this has it’s own problems. Paper is flammable and wettable. 8-tracks, cassette tapes, hard drives, CDs DVDs Blue rays and many many more need specialized readers to access the data stored on them. Sure, molecular data storage is tiny and durable. But do they make handheld mass spectrometers yet? Oh, wait, yes they do. And unlike many spectrometer detectors, the process is non-destructive of the sample being read (again, in theory. But we’re talking science fiction right now, not mass practicality for many people to carry in their pocketses). So yes, in theory we could have millions of books for millions of years, as long as we remember how to read them.

Losing the memory of how to read, collectively, is not that strange a theory. It’s happened here on Earth. Several times that I am aware of and possibly more where all traces of the reading material have been utterly destroyed. I think we’re all familiar with the Rosetta Stone and how it was the key that unlocked dead languages. However, Minoan Linear A remains a mystery to this day, although Linear B was untangled and interpreted after years of effort. How much more difficult is it going to be if all you have for a library is a handful of highly encoded durable protein dust? We could be stomping around daily on top of an alien Library of Alexandria and never even suspect that was possible.

A shelf full of history.

Languages and how it’s encoded has not always been marks on stone, wood, or paper. String was used extensively by the Incas and surrounding cultures in the form of elaborate Quipu, which conveyed math as well as word concepts. Oral traditions are perhaps the most ancient… and malleable, of our traditional data transfers. Even textual records don’t keep the data from being altered, however. Sometimes the alteration is deliberate. More often, perhaps, the alteration is accidental, or at least incidental, as the author of a translated work imprints their own voice and interpretation to it.

Storytelling on paper lacks a certain something that spoken word can give it back. Which is, perhaps, why the Golden Age of Radio is making a comeback in podcasts. Wait, you said reading material in the title… yes, I did. But having a book read to you brings it to life. And you can listen to data while your hands and eyes are doing something else (like weighing out samples in the lab, or loading the mass spec autosampler!) which is a big bonus for reclaiming previously wasted time that could have been spent reading and absorbing data. I tend to listen to a lot of non-fiction research type material, but there are stories out there which you might not be able to find in print format. They went straight to digital media… like Thornvale, which is produced by a friend of mine, but it’s not just that I’m biased toward her work, it’s really good.

Technology advances seemingly relentlessly, a Juggernaut of endless change. One medium rises, then falls, while another appears out of thin air to take it’s place. In the wake of this linger the data sets that can no longer be read easily. Reverse engineering is easier than creating a new thing, but still. Is it worth doing? I look at my shelf full of antique books, and ponder how many of them I’ve read, or will read, or my children will read? Will they?

My Grandmother sent me a box full of books a couple of years ago. I have not yet read any of them. But what is precious about them, even the ones that have been loved and used nearly to death, is the family connection. What she sent me were, in most part, school books that had been used by family members. Some I never met, they were dead long before I was born. This is a connection that means more to me than holding a handful of encoded dust. I can hold the pages, see the childish looping handwriting of my Great-grandfather having written his name in a history when he was a boy. When my genetic line was not yet thought of. When time as I know it had yet to begin. I was born 72 years later.

And then there are the books which no longer could be made. The ones that convey messages now deemed repugnant by the current cultural dictate. And if you don’t think cultures, mores, and tastes change, I highly suggest you try out some old books, the older the better, because what might repel you was perfectly normal to them. We are not the same as our ancestors, for better or for worse, and if we destroy all hint of those things we find different, repellant, and unsightly, what have we learned?

My grandmother’s notes for me are written on sticky pieces of paper produced with technology that led to a non-destructive adhesive. Data encoded on them is ephemeral, easily lost or destroyed. Data integrity is important if you want to preserve the reading material, the notes, the knowledge we have gained with so much difficulty. Books? Molecules? Crystal matrices? I don’t know that it matters. I think what matters is teaching every generation that reading material, listening material, data is important. Keeping it to pass down to the next generation, and the next, as long as humans endure. That’s the important part. And cautioning that it can be lost. It can be destroyed by the short-sighted who wish to rub out history like an errant mark on a school paper. But unlike chalk on slate, books, molecules, the internet existing as fleeting electrons… that’s not so easily washed away once a human sees it, and writes it to the gray matter. As long as they pass it on.

“I read the story of Aladdin (page 143). Interesting how the modern versions have been watered down. (Or dumbed down)”


22 thoughts on “Millions of Years of Reading Material

  1. Slightly on topic – I was running through the tapes section of the hardware store just the other day, and passed by pads of the sticky notes. Ones that said “Weatherproof, adhesive holds for ninety days in any kind of weather.” Which has me on a strange thought tangent now. “What if” – Yellowstone blows, fine ash covers wide swathes of countryside, and a few thousand years from now, the ruins are excavated. How shall the future interpret “110 / 220 – 14,” or “FOJ”? (One use I can see for these is to mark the routing of electric / data lines, junction box locations, etc.)

  2. Where was it I read that passage: “Books with pages so adamant they would come fluttering out of the sun after a supernova…” Childhood’s End, I think.

  3. One might think that there would be a straight line from Linear B to Linear A, but that does not seem to be the case.

      1. because Linear A is an alien language!

        (been used at least once already)

  4. Read old books exactly for that reason.

    It helps with the world-building to have them knock your block off. Otherwise you assume the modern day is so normal that it never occurs to check whether this thing or that would be different.

  5. Reading old books, and about times before, is often a step into a completely different world.

    There’s a whole genre of old books that would probably offend – old travelogues, the books that described the ‘exotic, far-away lands.’

  6. I was so consumed with book envy that it took me a while to calm down.

    I read somewhere that someone said…. If BioOpticallyOrientedKnowledge devices had been invented after computers we would be overcome by this technology that did not require special devices to interpret its data. It is reasonably impervious to life with a reasonable amount of protection. BOOKs are way more durable than magnetic tape or floppy disks and can be seen and interpreted with the naked eye, unlike the molecules.

    The reason I am so consumed with desire for old books is that as a math teacher I can tell you that we have forgotten how to teach math. And as a reader of student essays I can tell you that within the last ten years my students’ ability to write a reasonable sentence has slipped close to a vanishing point. And that is because they no longer read. They think someone else will always have the knowledge they need so why learn. I adore learning knitting techniques on YouTube or watching the lady who makes a lace butterfly using a fork. But….

    Anyway if you have a fifty year old geometry textbook that you don’t want…. You know where to send it.

    1. “I can find it online, so why read the textbook?” “Everything’s online.”

      Sorting the wheat from the chaff online, however… And pointing out that some search engines automatically drop all web sites, articles, and other things more than X years old doesn’t get the problem across. Or so it seems, some days.

      1. a) Not everything is online. Far from it.
        b) There are all sorts of specialized arts in the various professional fields of science and engineering, that are not even documented well anywhere. So you can i) do research, and track down someone who can tell you how this stuff really works ii) do what they did, and learn to research and reason well enough to reinvent it yourself. You won’t find this stuff in your highschool science or freshman engineering texts. You can read a bunch of graduate level science or engineering texts in the field before finding out that the subfield exists.
        c) Scientific articles? Can be a serious pain to get ahold of, especially for a monolingual idiot like me. One of the first historical publications for something I was looking was first published in German, at a time when a lot of the scientists in that field spoke German. (A lot of good work in that field is still published in German.) I could, maybe did, track down the German first publication. But a lot of the subsequent English translations of the article were not readily available. I eventually found an English language textbook by the author, which covered some of the same material. If you want to find specific current publications, explore back issues, or do a scientific literature search, it is not just online, but through your university’s licensed digital collections. Which will never be comprehensive, because no university has the budget, and are severely limited by the quality of the search engine. You need key words to start with, and textbooks or talking to professors are pretty important tools for finding those key words.
        d) Then there is all the recent scientific and engineering history that is being outright lost, because the people involved are dying or becoming to old, and not enough of them have been interviewed.
        e) Then there is all the stuff that has been lost from the internet.

  7. Dr Jerry Pournelle wrote two novels that I recall that dealt with the ephemeral nature of written knowledge, and how two races attempted to resolve it. In “The Mote in God’s Eye”, the moties long ago established museums that were exempted from their wars of destruction so that when their current civilization collapsed, they would be there for their race to use to rebuild the new one. In “Footfall”, the aliens themselves were the beneficiaries of a previous race that had encoded their knowledge in huge monoliths scattered around their planet.

    In both cases these were macroscopic items of extreme durability. They did not require specialized technology to “read: them. The problem with digital, or cellular, encoding and storage is that none of the information is identifiable as such to an ordinary person or being. It therefore fails the test of macroscopic identification. If history holds true to course, even the Internet will someday fail and everything on it will be lost to history. Doubly lost, because there won’t be an parchment book to discover 5000 years later hidden in some long deceased person’s time capsule.

  8. Which does raise the issue of the alien item capsule, voyager knockoff, or similar artifact that we find, and know that glowing crystal contains their complete body of knowledge, but… we don’t know how to read it. I’m sorry, but the old dodge of math being consistent, and somehow building up from there to language seems unlikely to me. Perhaps the glowing crystal could teach us their language, starting at the beginning…

  9. Have physics textbook from a distant relative, used at UC Berkeley pre WWI. A time capsule of what we knew and didn’t know, and what we didn’t teach the freshmen. They knew the atom had energy, knew you could never extract it. Einstein’s theory of relativity didn’t make it in. We have learned so much, and so little.

    Paper is such a good storage medium. We have an August 1914 bound NY Times. Protected from light, still readable. Sold by the San Francisco library when they replaced it with no longer readable “modern” microfilm. This is real paper, from back when the NY Times was the paper of record.

    My wife’s father was a book collector. We have thousands from him, more thousands from my SF hobby/obsession. Yet the most valuable piece of paper from him is a partly used message pad he used as a Marine on Guadalcanal in 1942, a piece of history.

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