The Memory Theater, Revisited

Late last year, I published the sketch of an essay here called “Don’t Take Away My Memory Theater.” The feedback that came in the comments from you readers was enough to encourage me to try developing the ideas in it even more. Now, finally, a much-extended version has been published by the good people at Open Letters Monthly: “In Defense of the Memory Theater.” It is, at first glance, my contribution to the Great Speculation among bookish people about what is going to happen to reading when the machines finally take over, if they ever really do. It seems lately that just about every writer is required to submit some opinion on the matter. But I try to make my contribution reach a bit more than usual from matters of fact to those of spirit.

I am in no position to end with prognostication, to predict how all this business will turn out, or to recommend particular policy directives and consumer rules-of-thumb. The companies will have their way, of course; as the filmmaker Chris Marker once put it, I bow to the economic miracle. But I can end with a vision, and it can point to a posture.

Picture a library, in flames, overlooking the city in ruins below—the Library of Alexandria under Caesar’s assault all over again. Books by the thousands audibly crinkle as they incinerate, disappearing for all time, never to be read again and, in a generation or two, never to be remembered. They are all irreplaceable; their loss is exactly incalculable. They are now good only to fuel the fire. As bystanders, we’re consumed by horror. We imagine ourselves as the books, the books as ourselves. Everything is lost with them. Right?

Or, on the other hand, might we instead laugh and cheer? It wouldn’t be the first time at a book-burning. Why not? Isn’t there also comedy—a divine comedy—in what freedom would follow the immolation of civilization’s material memory? We have only ourselves again, ourselves and our God. Perhaps these flames might go by the name of progress.

Thank you so much to all of you who took the time to comment and encourage. Fleshing this piece out, in particular, and putting it before readers means a lot to me.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.