I had an interesting conversation with my eleven-year-old daughter the other day. Well, Debbie will be eleven in August, but she acts more like she’s about 45.
Debbie wants to be a doctor. When most girls her (chronological) age would be playing video games, soccer, or with dolls and starting to notice that the boys really aren’t all that bad, Debbie reads medical books, dissects animals in her “lab” (at least I think they are animals…there’s at least one that I suspect is actually a chupacabra), and has the rather annoying habit of second-guessing the various doctors we see as a family. At least I suspect that the doctors find this a little annoying.
I was in my office writing and Debbie came in to ask me if her little brother JJ could have some ice cream. After I told her that would be fine, Debbie looked at my screen for a few moments. She tilted her head to one side and said, “Mom, do you even understand what you’re doing?” I smiled and told her that I did. Debbie shook her head. “I really doubt that.”
As hinted at above, there’s no doubt that Debbie is bright. Personally, I think she’s smarter than I am. A lot smarter. So I asked her what she meant.
Debbie stared at me for a moment, and then she shrugged. “I want to be a doctor, but unless I discover some new illness or a new procedure to save lives or maybe invent a new surgical tool, no one will know who I am after I die.” She smiled and pointed at my screen. “Your work will live on forever. I can go right now and read works of poetry and literature written thousands of years ago by people who are long dead, and their voices speak across time to me. Your books will be there in libraries and personal collections that are passed down from generation to generation, and in the distant future people will still hear your voice telling them stories.”
And yes, Debbie really does talk that way.
I considered what she said, and I think she’s right. Books are a remarkable invention. Our ancestors figured out that by making marks on paper or parchment or stone or wood that they could pass down information to the generations that follow. Books let us share our knowledge so that our children don’t have to start from scratch in learning about the universe.
It’s easy to get lost in the idea of books of science, technology, philosophy, history, and other similar fields of knowledge that are needed in an advance society are all there is, but what about literature and entertainment? Is The Great Gatsby any less important than Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica? Does Plato represent the best of humanity any better than Poe?
I think that the answer to these questions is “no”.
While the works of the great thinkers are important, our humanity doesn’t live in the realm of science. Nor does it live in the domains covered by religion or philosophy.
Our humanity, the thing that makes us who and what we are, lives in our art and literature. The passion of Rembrandt and van Gogh speaks out from their art in a voice far too loud to ignore. The words of Stoker and Burroughs reverberate across the years and grab our imagination.
The works of Newton, Galileo, and their kind tell us how the world works. Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, and others tell us why the world works.
I want to take you to a horrible place for a thought exercise…
Imagine that you had knowledge that tomorrow at noon human civilization would come to an end. Not the planet or human beings, but society and civilization. (While we are not talking about the end of the human race, it’s likely that any event able to end human society would also drop the population to less than a few hundred thousand individuals.) Now, you have a way to protect a small group of books in a way that 100 years from tomorrow the survivors would find the books.
Remember that civilization is gone. There have been no books, TV, movies, or anything else for a century. It is reasonable to believe that written language may have gone the way of the mammoths. Some legends would persist, handed down as oral histories and probably carried along by something like traveling minstrels.
Now comes the hard part…
You can only save ten books.
What ten books would you place in your time capsule?
Now, on to brighter topics…
Debbie’s observations made me think about what I am doing. The career options available to a little deaf blonde girl are limited. Most involve fewer clothes than even I normally wear. But writing is one that is at least respectable.
It never occurred to me that I might have a responsibility to the future. This is in spite of the fact that I write mostly science fiction…my job is to predict the future. In, say, a thousand years, what account will I be able to give for my stewardship of humanity’s future history?
If you are an author, what account will you be able to give?