"If humans could learn from history, there wouldn't be so much of it."
“Our vision is every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.”
Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com
History is to the past as Moby Dick is to "Fought whale. Lost.". Even if it's true as stated, it's necessarily a radical reduction. Anyone who's read a book of another era, or visited the NYT archives, feels the wonder of untold stories. Jim Stogdill has written an excellent essay, inspired by the Bezos quote, on history and books ...
... I had been doing some research this morning and was reading a book published in 1915. It's long out of print, and may have only had one printing, but I know from contemporary news clippings found tucked in its pages that the author had been well known and somewhat controversial back in his day. Yet, Google had barely a hint that he ever existed. I fared even worse looking for other people referenced in the text. Frustrated, I grabbed a 3x5 card and scribbled:
"Google and the end of history... History is no longer a continuum. The pre-digital past doesn't exist, at least not unless I walk away from this computer, get all old school, and find an actual library."
My house is filled with books, it's ridiculous really. They are piled up everywhere. I buy a lot of old used books because I like to see how people lived and how they thought in other eras, and I guess I figure someday I'll find time to read them all. For me, it's often less about the facts they contain and more about peeking into alternative world views. Which is how I originally came upon the book I mentioned a moment ago.
The problem is that old books reference people and other stuff that a contemporary reader would have known immediately, but that are a mystery to me today - a mystery that needs solving if I want to understand what the author is trying to say, and to get that sense of how they saw the world...
It's not the pre-digital past that seems increasingly blurred and lost, it's the pre-Google past. Much of the early computer era, even the early Internet era, is think on the net.
Lovely essay. I wish both Amazon and Google, with similar missions to bring knowledge the world, great success.