In a recent article about writer and photography critic Teju Cole, Norman Rush notes that Cole’s emergence as a social media superstar makes him a “kind of realm.” Beyond his fine reputation as the author of books and other print media, Cole is also an accomplished photographer and prolific “Tweeter” with a huge Facebook following.
Cole himself has observed that some of the finest “literary minds of our generation” express themselves by means other than traditional print media. Yet they often still write books. Presumably that’s because books are more serious than tweets. Books are also more likely to stick around long enough to reach posterity.
Is this valid?
Writing for Posterity
I’ve been intrigued by the idea that my writing would outlive me since I was a child. Growing up, of course, I realized that dreams of immortality are juvenile. Reading Ozymandias in high school damped down such delusions. Getting older killed them off entirely. Literary giants I considered immortal—Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen—turned out to have lived just a century or two before me. When you pass 50 yourself, centuries no longer seem all that long.
Longer-term literary giants like Shakespeare have only been communicating with posterity for under 500 years. That’s a small fraction of human history. Even the unthinkably ancient Greeks are relatively new in the grand spectrum of time.
Even so, like many writers, I continue to be fueled emotionally by the sense that what I write today—even if it isn’t yet appreciated, or even read—might someday touch someone, even someone yet unborn.
Are Books Better Than Tweets?
Books and other written media do seem to hold more promise in the immortality category than 140 characters blasted into cyberspace. And yet in some ways you might say that digital missives never die.
I feel like I spend half my life batting down irresponsibly researched claims and fake news on Facebook feeds. Once posted, these errors can be retrieved and replicated forever, or so it seems.
We have all been told, repeatedly, that if we want to preserve anything forever, digital is the way to go.
Yet more and more, I can’t help agreeing that anything digital is ephemeral. If digital is forever, then why can’t I find most of the photos I snapped with my iphone last year but have no problem locating the one poignant picture of my grandfather on my wall? And those novels I typed into my mother’s word processor back in the 1980’s so they’d “last forever”? They now hide within some flopped-out floppy disk. I don’t have a clue about how to access them.
I’m not the first to suggest that historical records may themselves be historical relics. No one writes, much less saves, letters anymore. Books take up space. Fewer and fewer people read books, and so as writers we naturally turn to social media to communicate. But we’re fooling ourselves if we think that most of what we write will make a dent in the literary canon.
The sheer magnitude of digital content and lack of curation diminish its value. And ever-changing technology suggests that what is easily retrievable today may fade into cyberspace somewhere in the not-too-distant future.
All that makes me think that if I want something saved for my grandchildren and beyond, it’s more likely to reach them in the form of a book or a physical album.
The Staying Power of the Printed Word
In the end it seems that while old-fashioned print media is costlier and rarer, it is also more likely to be cherished, preserved, and retrievable. Yes, pages crumble. Yes, even great libraries burn. Perhaps it is most accurate to say therefore that oral literature may last the longest of all. Or, at least it did last until we stopped gathering whole communities to receive it the way today only some spiritual communities still do.
In general, though, committing your story to print still seems to be a better bet. And it is thus entirely understandable that writers who want to be taken seriously, and valued for more than the split second they walk the earth, might want to commit their words to the printed page
Their books will not last forever. Nothing does, of course. Nothing even lasts very long. But the printed word will undoubtedly stick around longer than words in virtually any other media we writers have available to us—except, of course, emails, which, as we all know, never die.