When I married my classically trained musician wife, I thought the invention of the compact disc utterly exciting. With proper investment in a sound system, we could experience a performance of any composer—say, Bach—better than that heard in all but the finest concert halls. In my ignorance, musical paradise would dawn: the disc would never wear out, and we could purchase a “perfect” performance and repeat it whenever we wanted. Someday computers would execute the score perfectly, obviating the need for human musicians entirely.

It did not take long for my wife to demonstrate my folly. There is no such thing as a perfect performance of Bach. A score is not like a set of program instructions to be executed by the mechanical musician but a guide to be interpreted by the artist. One does not have to fall into postmodernism to say that authorial intent is not all there is inside a performance.

Most importantly, any canned music misses the interaction of the audience and performers. The response of the audience is not a distraction from hearing the music but is part of the concert. While a rude audience may ruin a concert by coughing or a ringing cell phone, a lively and well-informed audience helps create a unique experience for everyone in attendance.

Plato could point to a more serious problem: the fixity of the music is unfair to the musician. The musician cannot change the tone or color of the music to make it appropriate to her audience. The musician might wish to make her music fit my mood, but she cannot if it is recorded. Her interpretation of a piece might be cheerful when my mood is morose, but the musician cannot minister to my needs because she is caught in one musical mood eternally.

Even more potentially deadly to society is the fact that once fixed it is difficult for the author or artist to monitor the distribution of a performance (including books). This problem must be separated from any issues of government censorship. Whatever the means used to prevent it, most people understand that it is bad news when some people can access certain information.

A preserved performance is passive and waiting to be misused. The author can do little to prevent such a misuse.

Live discourse can be modified for the audience. An adult can change the topic when he sees a child walking into the room. A teacher can leave out key material in a lecture if she suspects that it might be misused by a student in the class. Meanwhile, the manual sits waiting for the terrorist to find information on weapons of mass destruction, and inappropriate entertainment waits for children to find it. There is no way for a book to monitor who picks it up.

A preserved text or performance simply cannot defend itself from misinterpretation or from vandalism. A lunatic attacked Michelangelo’s stunning statue, David, in 1991 and chipped off part of a toe on the left foot. Michelangelo preserved his beautiful vision in a statue and placed it in public. With the glorious good came the opportunity for a great crime against art to be perpetrated by a madman.

Public displays of beauty allow for public profanation. The simple lunatic can become a blasphemer against art and beauty. Even worse is the simpleton who misunderstands the message of the preserved art, so powerful that it commands his attention. In this way, the beauty of the Bible can motivate horrific behavior when the simple-minded misunderstand its message. The powerful work of the artist goes out so that those who have ears to hear can blaspheme the message ignorantly and inappropriately.

Books Can Be Good: The Benefits of Preserved Discourse

I am writing a book chapter about the dangers of writing a book chapter. Obviously I think the risk is worthwhile. The vast benefits of preserved discourse to society far outweigh the liabilities. This is why, despite the problems, nobody is going to quit painting, writing poetry, publishing scientific articles, or sculpting.