Art Beat: Books are tough, the internet is wimpy

mdunham@adn.comDecember 5, 2013 

Th-that's all, folks!

A new report from the Library of Congress provides the first comprehensive survey of American feature films from the silent era that still survive -- and it's not good news.

"The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929" follows up on previous research documenting 10,919 silent feature films of American origin released from 1912 through 1929. The goal of the study was to determine how many remain, where they are and in what condition. The glum summary: only 14 percent exist in their original format. Five percent of those are incomplete. Eleven percent of the films that are complete exist only as foreign releases (the Czech Republic turned out to have a surprisingly high number) or in formats of lower quality than the 35mm that was standard for commercial work of the day, often in home movie transfers.

In a press release, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said the report confirms "an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation's cultural record."

It's hard to disagree with that, but it gets me thinking about the weakness of modern formats. A couple of weeks back, I commented on an Atlantic magazine article listing what the authors deemed the most important inventions since the wheel. At the top of the list was the printing press. Celluloid disintegrates over time. Records wear out. Magnetic tape loses its charge. Lord knows what kinds of corruption today's pixels will have undergone before some future scholar needs to refer to them.

But books are a different matter. I can buy an incunabula edition of St. Augustine's "City of God" in just about the same condition as it was when it was printed and bound in 1489. Admittedly, it'd be purchased over the internet, cost me $9,548.56 and is in Latin.

But it exists as a solid thing, ancient yet remarkably free from deterioration. Were the author to somehow appear in the present and pick it up, he would see and understand his words as clearly and exactly as he put them down at his desk on the coast of Africa 1,500 years ago.

It's no small trick for anything made by a human being to stick around for a millennium or two in more or less its original condition, particularly a work of art. Quality of inspiration and execution is important, but so is toughness. Books and monumental statuary can take a pounding. Guitars and watercolors will last if they're treated tenderly. Movies and emails, it seems, need to be constantly tended, archived and transferred to the next generation of ephemeral storage technology or else vanish like last night's dream.

Digital data has much to recommend it -- searchability, speedy access, rapid dissemination. It's possible that more people are reading "City of God" right now than at any time since it was written thanks to audiobooks and Kindle editions. But will those versions survive as long as the original 1489 tome?

Probably not. If something is important enough to keep around, write it down.

We told you it was good

Speaking of books: "The Raven's Gift" by Anchorage author Don Rearden was included in the Washington Post's "Notable Fiction 2013" announced on Nov. 22. The roster of 50 titles included novels by big names like Stephen King, John Grisham and Margaret Atwood.

The list of 50 fiction and 50 nonfiction books appears to have started running in 2010. Since then, only one other Alaska book, "Caribou Island" by David Vann, has been named. (I couldn't find any Alaskan authors in the nonfiction lists, but could have missed something.) I'm not sure what the rules are. Vann's book, published in 2010, made the list in 2011. Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" was included in 2010, a year after its English translation came to America and three years after the original book was published in Sweden. Most baffling, "The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov" by Paul Russell made the list twice, in 2011 and 2012.

"The Raven's Gift," set in an apocalyptic Kuskokwim Delta, was published in Canada in 2011 and released in America by Pintail/Penguin this year. Rearden, an associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, recently contributed a review of Vann's "Goat Mountain" to the Daily News.

More lit hits

"The Snow Child," the debut novel by Mat-Su author Eowyn Ivey, continues to rank high on the Pacific Northwest Independent Booksellers best-sellers list, where it's been a more or less permanent feature in the top 15 since the book came out.

There was a surprise in the Dec. 1 list, however, when Velma Wallis' "Two Old Women" came in at No. 9 in the paperback fiction category. Harper Perennial released a 20th anniversary edition of the book last month. It was originally published by Epicenter Press in 1993.

Sharing the list with Wallis and Ivey is Sherman Alexie, not an Alaskan but a writer who has spent some time here presenting workshops and such. His collection of short stories, "Blasphemy," is at No. 6.

Oh, the shark bites!

The University of Alaska Anchorage Opera Ensemble will present a tribute to Kurt Weill in the form of a theatrical revue at 7:30 p.m. tonight. Classically trained, Weill became one of the few European serious composers to ever "get" American pop music. "Mack the Knife" and "September Song" are among the Weill songs that remain current. Mari Hahn will direct a cast of music and theater majors in a performance that weaves Weill's hits from "The Threepenny Opera," "Lady in the Dark" and "Street Scene" into a fresh storyline. Tickets are $15 general admission and $10 for seniors and military at the UAA Fine Arts Building box office.

Blackjack opera

Playwright Jack Dalton has been working on a libretto about Ada Blackjack, the Alaska Native Woman who accompanied an ill-considered expedition to Wrangel Island in the 1920s in which everyone died or disappeared -- except her. Dalton read his "Ada: An Opera of the Arctic" on Nov. 30 at Bunnell St. Gallery in Homer. And that's about all the information we have on it at the moment, but the topic sounds interesting. Blackjack, who died in 1983, is buried at the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.

Calling all Janeites

Fans of Jane Austen will celebrate her 238th birthday with conversation and tea next Sunday in the Ann Stevens Reading Room at Loussac Library. UAA professor Toby Widdiecombe will conduct the discussion, which comes with light refreshments. The event is free, but you must RSVP today by emailing askalibrarian@muni.org.


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

 

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