When the World Ends, Don’t Save Books
It’s the end of the world and you can only save one book. What do you save? You’ve probably been asked this question at some point, or were probably going to be, at a party or in a philosophy class. Now you’ve been asked. What jumps to mind? The Complete Works of William Shakespeare? The Bible? Some kind of apocalyptic survival guide? That last one would be pretty selfish, but there’s no judgment at the end of the world. Although, no apocalyptic survival guide that exists today would probably be of use if somehow the world actually did end. Most people pick based on what they would want to preserve of our culture. All of this is to say, one answer few if any have ever given to this question is none. Don’t save any books. Here’s why.
If the end of the world came and there were survivors to try to rebuild, there are other things to prioritize over books and what they contain, like shelter and food. These are what television shows and movies about the end of the world concentrate on. When those television shows and movies come around to the preservation of culture, it is usually from memory. On an episode of The Walking Dead in which the characters find themselves singing and playing guitar to make their fellows feel better, they are not reading off lead sheets. It’s all in their heads. Is it done perfectly, the way it was intended? Probably not. Did they need to save the guitar anymore than they needed to save a book? No, they could have just sung. And that is the point. Books haven’t always existed, but stories have, and if the end of the world came along, our best method of telling stories would not be to read them, but to bring back the oral tradition.
Many of the stories in Shakespeare’s plays were not original stories by Shakespeare, but just his take on legendary figures like Amleth (Prince Hamlet) or Leir of Britain (King Lear). The same goes for bible stories. Most of these stories are so well known in the culture that even people who haven’t read them could recite them, some better than others. Scholars who know them best could be called upon to recite them. And when it comes for more modern stories that we might want to hear after the end of the world, the way that people consume and obsess over their favorite novels these days, there will always be someone who can recount Stephen King’s Carrie or Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire. There will be millions of people of all ages ready to tell you Harry Potter’s story from beginning to end without lugging around seven books. They won’t be as originally written, but neither are the versions of Greek myths we know today the same as when they were originally told, because they were told and not written.
Perhaps these stories will change to reflect the needs of the post-apocalyptic times, as stories have evolved to suit their times over the course of history (this phenomenon is lovingly depicted in the musical The Book of Mormon). If the time comes for someone to write them down, create a new library if all of the old ones have been destroyed, they may be very different than they originally were, but not necessarily worse for wear. And perhaps, as often happens today, “original” versions of these stories may be uncovered from ruins by future archeologists, and compared to their current incarnations. But a return to the oral tradition would be good for the rebuilding of civilization, since it would mean that new old stories are one more thing of value an outsider could offer to a newly growing society. Reading a book is a mostly solitary endeavor, but reciting a story brings people together, and that is what we’ll need if the world ends.