29 November 2013

Deus Ex Librarica?

On the 16th of November, Elizabeth Zelvin posted an article here, concerning the literary longevity of contemporary writers. Her post inferred the question:

 Will any contemporary authors be remembered one hundred years from now? 

 In the comments section of that post, Eve Fisher mentioned the possibility of a natural or man-made disaster disrupting the national power grid between now and that future time, making the printed word a precious commodity once more.

 Eve’s comment interested me because, as a Special Forces Engineer Sergeant, part of my training included an in-depth examination of Target Analysis.

 Put simply, Target Analysis is the study of national supply networks (electrical distribution systems, transportation systems, fuel distribution systems, etc.) and how to disrupt them at different levels.

 On this post-Thanksgiving day, when we’re all probably still sleepy from the aftermath, I’m not going to explain details about Target Complexes, Target Components, or the decision matrices used to determine which Target Components to destroy in order to disrupt a Target Complex for a desired time period.  (Besides:  It's one thing to post very basic general explosives information, and quite another to explain how and where to plant explosives in order to disrupt national supply networks.)

 Instead, I’d like to present a sort of game, proposing a theoretical scenario and asking you to answer a question.

Reading the post, and the comments by Elizabeth and Eve, I began to consider:  What would happen if I were given the choice of which authors might be read 100 years from now?  Which authors would I choose?  And, if I knew books were about to become a rare commodity, which books would I try to preserve for humanity?

The Scenario: 

 An advanced alien race intercepted one of our Voyager probes and interpreted it in a hostile manner. Now, they are afraid that violent humans might soon begin exploring space.

 After long deliberation, they made a weighty decision. They recently took over all airwaves on our planet, to broadcast a very apologetic message, in which they explained their intentions to bombard Earth with atomic turkey legs, in an attempt to set us back to a time of medieval technological capabilities.

An Atomic Turkey Leg
.005 seconds after explosion
 Immediately following this announcement, the attack began. The atomic turkey leg explosions did great blast damage, leveling all large cities and killing millions, but—due to advanced alien technology—the explosions released virtually no deadly radiation.

 They did, however, wreak havoc through Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) generation, knocking out the world’s electrical systems and turning most contemporary automobiles into little more than oversized paper weights.

Because you are such a kind person, however, you have recently come into custody of a running vehicle.

 You were lucky enough to flee built-up areas of civilization, before the attack commenced, and wound up in a rural zone where you met an old man trying to get to his dying wife’s bedside.

He owned a well-maintained 1974 Ford Pinto hatchback, but couldn’t see well enough to drive. Because you were kind enough to drive him to his wife’s care home, he gave you the car—which is old enough that the EMP didn’t effect it. He also gave you a map and key to a blast/fallout shelter, stocked with years of food and other supplies, which he owns a few miles away.

 While you’re driving to the shelter, an alien ship flies overhead, large loudspeakers blaring: “People of Earth, we remind you that we really feel bad about this. But, we’re doing it because we think you wouldn’t feel bad about doing this to us, so we’re trying to protect ourselves. In the interests of killing as few of you as possible—now that most of you are dead—we’d like to let you know that we will shortly begin Phase II of our plan.

 "In thirty minutes, we will target the remaining centers of knowledge or industry on your planet with laser weapons that will destroy anything within a 100-yard radius. These secondary targets include all still-existing factories, refineries, libraries and research facilities.

 "Please remember: There’s nothing personal in this attack. We just want to bomb you back to a technological base which will keep us safe for a bit longer. Thank you! And have a nice day.”

 As the announcement concludes, you drive over the top of a rise and see that a tiny town on your route has incongruously built a large 4-story library. An alien ship hovers nearby, waiting to destroy the library in thirty minutes.

 The shelter you’re driving toward is about five minutes beyond this town. Brave soul that you are, however, you floor it and drive straight to the library to begin loading books into your car, intent on preserving some of humanity’s hard-won knowledge.

 The Question: 

 You have just under 30 minutes to gather books within a large library, and store them in a ’74 Pinto. The pic on the right should give you some idea how much room you have inside the hatchback.

 Though the power is out, preventing you from using the computer to locate any books, you’re excited to discover that this particular library has maintained their card catalogue for some reason. Thus, there is a way to find the call number of non-fiction books.

 Which books would you take?

 Maybe you’d take particular types of books. Or, perhaps there is a book that you feel has greater importance than any other, so maybe you’d grab that one, then try to find others.

 You’re losing time, if you stand there thinking. You’ve got to act quickly. So, what do you do?

 Maybe, you’d like to list the first five or ten books you’d try to save.

 Perhaps you’ve thought this out before, and would like to share your plan with us.

 Your answer(s) and how you approach your decision is up to you, and you alone. But please let us know, in the comments section, what you would do.

 You’ll find my answer in the comments section, too. 

See you in two weeks,


  1. Dixon, here I am with a big fat turkey sandwich and coffee for breakfast, and you greet me with this challenge.

    First,let me say I'm doing it for fun, not especially intellectually. My first book would be a world history; second, a children's book; third, a young adult; next, an example from as many genres as possible. Finally, three for my personal reading pleasure: a Mark Twain (maybe Huck Finn), a William Faulkner (THE SOUND AND THE FURY or ABSOLOM, ABSOLOM), and a Stephen King (either THE SHINING or THE STAND).

  2. Okay, Dixon, gotta add the Bible.

  3. Dix, the beloved speculative fiction novel and current movie, Ender's Game, posits a similar scenario, ie we're only doing it to them because they're doing it to us.

    A recent post on my other blog, Poe's Deadly Daughters, looked at a 1982 children's SF story, The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh (the British writer who has been continuing the Lord Peter Wimsey series): in the last days of the destruction of the Earth, a group of colonizers of a new planet are each allowed to take just one book. The punch line is that the youngest member of the central family takes a blank book on which it turns out she's been writing the whole narrative of what happens to them, ie what it's most important to preserve is not individual books, but storytelling.

    The point of my post here, which I think some readers missed, is that Shakespeare and Dickens have already earned their place in the collective human library. It's authors who are not only writing now but obscure now and will be little known when they die who don't have a chance of literary survival. No more Emily Dickinsons, no more Van Goghs (to borrow the most spectacular example from another area of creative endeavor).

    Finally, to answer your question: Shakespeare's at the top of the list for what must be preserved for humanity. For my personal reading pleasure and to make sure I don't run out of reading matter that I won't get tired of re-reading, Id take Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, and Dorothy Dunnett's Francis Crawford of Lymond books. The latter two provide a view of a generous chunk of human history, and the Vorkosigan books, despite their galactic setting, offer many insights about the way human culture works.

  4. Of course, this happened, back in the 300-400's CE, when Rome - and all the villas, villages, etc., with any wealth - was sacked and destroyed. And that was karma for what Rome did to the Library at Alexandria, etc., during ITS days of conquest...

    Anyway. Complete works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Barbara Tuchman & Jonathan Spence (both excellent historians), Plato, and Confucius, as well as the Bible, the Mahabharata, a couple of basic cookbooks, and at least two solid shelves of my history collection, especially those of daily life in wartime, because that's where we'd be at.

    Also, for fun, because we're going to need it, "Diary of a Nobody", James Thurber, Patrick McManus and other humorists. Also, works by Peter Mattheison, Thomas Merton, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Jungle Books and Kim by Kipling; the complete works of Ursula LeGuin, Ray Bradbury, and P. L. Travers; my yard of children's books, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, fairy tales, etc. (we will, hopefully, have children with us). Poetry by Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Byron, Keats, Yeats, Cavafy, Murasaki Shikibu.

    Mysteries? Sherlock Holmes; The Woman in White; Peter Wimsey and Nero Wolfe and Dame Frevisse. And whatever else I can throw in at the last minute.

    (Hilary Mantel, Patrick O'Brian, Lampedusa, Gunter Grass, Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, Mary Renault, Tom Stoppard....)

    I have an advantage - I'm naming books from my shelves as I look around, and it wouldn't take that long to pile them up, pitch them into the car, and go. Can I have an SUV?

  5. Skip the catalog. Assuming that the library uses Dewey, which is most likely, go to the 600s, applied sciences.

    Reminds me of a science fiction story i read decades ago set in a galactic museum in which the guide explains to assorted aliens that the human race was destroyed because they sent out a satellite telling other species where they lived and showing illustrations of themselves.

    Why was that a kill-the-species offense? Because the people in the pictures we sent were NAKED.

  6. Oh, I am also reminded of the time a survey asked librarians what one book they would take to a desert island. I am proud to say that the answer most given by my peers was: a tattooed sailor.

  7. Fran: You and I had similar breakfasts (wonder how many across the nation did! LOL), except for the caffeine-carrier (Diet Coke for me).

    Your decision to grab a world history is one I didn’t think of, but wish I had. I also admire the way you would naturally obtain books written for different age groups. That’s a brilliant—and quite necessary!—idea that I completely overlooked.

    And, after reading Elizabeth’s comment, I’d say adding an appendage to the end of that world history book would be a fantastic way to pass the torch – what a great idea! Kudos, to both of you!

    Elizabeth: I not only understood your post—I thought it was really terrific! But, as my much-put-upon wife can attest, my mind often runs off down dark, tangential alleys, which was how I wound up deciding to post today’s topic. LOL

    The idea that storytelling is more important to preserve, than books, is brilliant! I wish I’d thought of that. I’m also completely bowled-over by your choice of fiction that highlights the human experience as well as history. Only an excellent writer would pick books that use words carrying double the weight! No wonder the idea didn’t occur to me! LOL

    Eve: Your thoughts on the Library of Alexandria, etc., are exactly what got me considering this post. I’ve always wondered what great engineering techniques, alone, were lost when Alexandria was sacked. And, frankly, I find the thought more than a little spooky.

    Your list was, by far, the longest yet. And, one quickly realizes the specific nature of what might, at first, appear to be randomly eclectic choices. This becomes particularly apparent, when you present choices that highlight war-time survival methods. Great idea! And, one that—once again—didn’t even occur to me.

    Rob: Your suggestion to skip the catalog and head straight for the 600 shelves tells me that you and I probably think in similar ways.

    The other point you make is one that highlights something that constantly puzzles me. Why do intelligent people insist on trying to let potential alien civilizations know that we’re out here? After all, there’s no guarantee that anyone intercepting the signal would be peaceful. For all we know—if there is alien life—they might view us as being akin to tasty cattle! (Like that line from the Twilight Zone: “Their book To Serve Man—It’s a cookbook!”)

    Thank you to everyone. I find the different ways we all seem to tackle the subject, fascinating. I hope to see a few more entries, and will post my own—which I generated yesterday, in five minutes, in order to keep to the time constraints of the scenario— in the comments below this.


  8. The books I’d choose:

    I tend to consider a strong connection between civilization and the ability to construct buildings, bridges and machinery. Therefore, I’d probably go after the math books first, concentrating on Geometry, Algebra II and Calculus, because my knowledge is weakest there. I feel confident that I could teach up through Algebra I with no problem, and would therefore skip those books, figuring I could write my own version.

    Next, I’d hit the fiction section to grab one of those giant books that contain the complete works of Shakespeare. I’d look for other complete works by other great writers, if I had time.

    I’d grab some medical books, probably starting with the Merck Manual. I know little about this book, except that the SF Medics on my A-Team worshiped it like a religious icon—and that’s good enough for me. While in the Merck section, I’d look for other titles that might provide useful medical information, in the hopes that not all medical knowledge would be lost.

    For societal reconstruction, I think it would be important to grab the writings of ancient Greek philosophers, a copy of the U.S. Constitution, and Black’s Law Dictionary. Maybe a few other law books—particularly those on constitutional law.

    Finally, I’d grab a Bible, a Talmud and a Koran, thinking that these three books would bring solace to most people with a religious inclination, whom I’d be likely to run into. If there were books on other religions in that section, I’d grab some of those also. Using the same logic, I’d grab a copy of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. If I still had time, I’d try to find books on electrical generation, mechanical engineering, and civil engineering books that concentrated on structures, as well as more fiction books.


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