By tradition Jews read the Book of Ecclesiastes on the intermediate Shabbat of the festival of Sukkot. Near the end of the book is a curious phrase. “Be warned, my son, of making many books” (Kohelet 12:12). According to Dr. Robert Gordis, the last six verses of the Book of Kohelet in which this phrase appears were the interpolation of a later editor who was both fascinated and troubled by the content of the book. Thus the warning was likely a reaction to some of the more controversial ideas propounded by Kohelet. Even so, the proper warning would have been to read books judiciously and critically rather than abstain from authoring any books at all. I was troubled by this warning each year considering that I have published four books and I am writing two more. But in May 2018 I read an article by Scott Gilmore in Maclean’s magazine that set my mind at rest.
The digital revolution has facilitated the creation of massive amounts of information. Nowadays, even those who Gilmore calls “the humblest among us” are leaving behind “digital pyramids crammed to bursting with records of our days, what we ate, where we went, what we thought and what we did, and even how often we defecated.” Were this mountain of information ever downloaded we would be staggered by its size. By one expert reckoning, a single Google account contained the equivalent of three million Word documents which, if printed, would yield a stack taller than the Empire State Building. In contrast, the entire corpus of William Shakespeare would not quite reach the height of a can of soda.
In the past, people worried about how they could be remembered if they were to be remembered at all. In today’s world, we have made ourselves impossible to forget. And, Gilmore concludes, therein lies the irony. “Our predecessors were forgotten because they left so little; we will be forgotten because we left so much.” And that is the warning of Kohelet. Take care in what you write, post, blog, and share. Much of the self-promotion that accounts for our digital record is unworthy of us. We should not be content with being remembered for guzzling fourteen beers during Spring Break or being first on line to purchase tickets for the latest blockbuster film. We should leave behind a record of how our lives made a difference; how our presence made the world a better place.