I recently read a couple of books that, specifically speaking in one case and broadly speaking in another, illustrate the narrative of information’s wanting to be free (in the sense of freely available), and the potentially history-altering or life-changing consequences that may arrive when it is.
The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Hershel Shanks tells the story of the battle to wrest access over the Scrolls, discovered in the early 1950s, from an exclusionary group of scholars who more or less refused to publish or grant access to them for decades. It also offers a precis of the potential religious and historical significance the scrolls, including possible redefinition of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Even though the Scrolls represented the most significant biblical archaeological find of the 20th century, the scholars who worked on deciphering them declined to publish their findings or even more than very narrowly disseminate facsimiles of the primary materials for a startlingly long time. It was not till Shanks and a handful of others forced the hands of the scholars that the world finally was able to see the scrolls for themselves. Now, thanks to their good efforts and the power of the Internet, together with the work of places like the Library of Congress, we can all see detailed images of the scrolls themselves, at any time, wherever we are in the world.
The publication of the primary material of scrolls has generated a massive bibliography and new fields of scholarship (including one called Qumran Studies, after the location of the scrolls’ discovery). In this case, information really did want to be free, and it took the hard work of a dedicated group of people to make it free.
Still, it seems, there are persistent and, according to Shanks, apparently plausible rumors of other intact Dead Sea Scrolls that are circulating in private hands around the world. The information bound up in these items, should they exist, needs to be set free through their publication, so that a more complete picture of this historical time can continue to be assembled. Even more scrolls are expected to be lurking in caves around Qumran the entrances to which have been covered up by earthquake over the millennia.
Gunther Grass’s memoir Peeling the Onion gets at the theme of information freedom differently. Grass, a Nobel prize winning German author, has been writing for more than half a century, during which time he has been an outspoken literary and activist left-of-center critic of Germany’s Nazi past, of its collective guilt, and of insufficient transparency and penance among the German people for their participation in the Holocaust and in the other crimes of the Third Reich. In the mid-1980s, he attacked President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl for visiting a cemetery than included Waffen graves. He was often described as–and seems to have been comfortable with the appellation–one of Germany’s chief moral authorities.
However, in 2006, it was revealed that Grass had himself been a member of the Waffen-SS. He joined when he was 17. Spiegel Online confirmed the basic facts of this story through the publication of several historical records. Grass published Peeling the Onion that year. While it purports to be a memoir of his life, or at least the first few decades of it, more or less up to the time he started writing The Tin Drum, one can’t help but get the feeling that he wrote it as an apologia pro sua Waffen vita.
As a book, Peeling the Onion is also a powerful literary biography of a man who must be one of the most highly literate writers now living. Grass gives us the source material from his life experiences of some of his brightly vivid major and minor characters. I am guessing that the memoir will be used as some sort of key to unlock his novels and plays by Grass scholars for many years to come. I also doubt that Grass’s past will obliterate entirely my own view of his writing (The Meeting at Telgte is outstanding). But in the end, I don’t think I will cherish this memoir.
Two books about information that, we might say, should be free.
(The answer to the question who played third base for Red Sox in 1912 is Larry Gardner. This is the kind of obscure piece of information that becomes immediately accessible on the Internet, through a single search on a major search engine. I’ll be revisiting what we might call the Larry Gardner Theory of the Internet in future writings).