The Forever Shelf

There are times when the sheer availability of modern media leaves me awestruck. Netflix means that, more than ever before, I can watch my favorites whenever I want. I’m having trouble emphasizing how big that difference is. I spent my youth encountering things I enjoyed and carefully watching for title sequences, “[show] will return after this,” and anything else that put a name on it I could use to recognize it in my friends or on toy-store shelves. I dreaded when shows would inevitably leave the airwaves, and watched reruns obsessively to fill in gaps from the previous viewing. Media was ephemeral, and there were never enough blank VHS tapes to capture it all.

The Internet became a consumer item late in my elementary education, and took a while to grow into itself. I watched the “search engine wars” leave Lycos and AltaVista in the dust as Google took primacy, and I watched Web 2.0 emerge before it even had the name. Searching for things in those days was a messy, ridiculous process. Often, the thing being sought didn’t exist in the first place, and even if it did, search tools might not list it until the 50th or 60th page of results. There was an accustomed futility to trying to find things then, where only incredible patience or knowing exactly where to look would lead to finding them. I was always patient, but the Internet was then new for me, too, and I had to learn where to look.

Once I had my own funds, and via gifts from my parents before that, I started collecting recordings. Most were purchased VHS tapes, a variety of documentaries and family movies I still remember fondly and, if I had a VHS player, would be tempted to look for and take back to Ottawa. A handful were recorded from the television, primarily obscure Discovery Channel documentaries with CGI framing devices I would dearly like to see again. Most recently, I began purchasing DVD boxed sets.

What was once ephemeral is now permanent. I used to watch Beast Wars in rapt attention before being driven or busing to school, back in New Jersey, and often had to miss the last five to ten minutes of an episode because of anticipated traffic. Some episodes I saw exactly once, because the (brilliant) later episodes in Season 2 were deemed too dark and sad for children after airing the first few times and were removed from circulation. Understanding the continuity was an exercise in obsessive detail, determining based on the presence or absence of certain characters, changes in character appearance, and reference to past events whether a particular episode happened before or after another.

Now, I can rewatch whenever I want, binging all 52 episodes and perhaps even the 26 episodes of its sequel series Beast Machines in a span of days if I care to. Now, I can parse minute details and connect them to later events, recognize series-spanning plot and character arcs, and think about broader themes without relying on my own faulty memory for material. Now, I can draw the line between childhood enthusiasm that doesn’t hold through the years and more adult appreciation that persists even after the halo fades.

Now, Rocko’s Modern Life and ReBoot aren’t distant, tangled memories of cartoon absurdity and high adventure, but join my other DVDs in permanent residence in my home and in my heart.

This impulse toward permanence is serving well in our new streaming future. Where modern illicit streaming sites lurch from server to server to escape copyright law and legal sites like Netflix gain and lose rights to content with the monetary winds, DVDs will last until the discs physically degrade or the last device capable of reading them falls into disrepair. The mountain of films and cartoon series in my hard drive, some of much better image quality than others, are mine no matter what happens to the places where I got them for as long as I have the disc space to keep them and a computer that can read standard video formats. The content-owning authorities have not yet figured out how to charge me for reading my own files, and until they do, I own them.

That control means a lot to someone who grew up not sure she didn’t hallucinate some of those cartoons, who can now share them with her friends in a variety of ways. I can be reasonably sure of keeping these things in long-term safety, even if it is ultimately by buying obsolete tech from thrift stores and keeping it working.

I buy old games from Grand Old Games and download music from YouTube and ask for DVD sets of my old favorites as gifts because, in a world where creative works can vanish into the past, permanence matters, and there is beauty in keeping one’s own past close at hand.

Now, it’s time for me to see if I can’t finally track down some of the Discovery Channel documentaries Google is trying to convince me never existed.

The Forever Shelf