There has been an outpouring of books and articles predicting the death of the printed book or the imminent end to the Age of the Book. Our transition to a digital culture has, for better or worse, rendered the paper book redundant, as hopelessly out-of-date as cassette recordings, video stores or rotary phones. The paper book, we’re told, is slated for the book museum. It will be gazed upon by future generations with the same bemusement as cuneiform tablets, papyrus fragments or illuminated manuscripts. “The reality is that there is great anxiety that the book might disappear,” declared Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Massachusetts, several years back.
If the Age of the Book is to end, it will be much more than a technological transition. For not only is the way we read already changing, the very need to read is receding. Constantly stimulated by an unending stream of images and sounds, prompted merely to click here or copy in one’s credit card info there, today’s digitized individual has ever-fewer reasons to wield the printed word. Auto-completed words and phrases in instant messaging, voice recognition and video communications, meanwhile, make writing ability ever-more dispensable. Perhaps reading will fade from everyday life and return to its historical roots as a quasi-secret language of specialists. At worst, the abandonment of reading could push much of society back into a pre-literate state.
Were anything like that to occur, it would be tragic on many levels. The unique brain development that is stimulated through reading would also be foregone by future generations of kids. “Human beings were never born to read,” Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist, wrote in Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Reading, she noted, involves the brain rearranging itself to learn something new. And whether we are reading them on screens or on the printed page, books stir our imagination, influence our brain development and transform our inner lives. They form the basis for any kind of intellectual life; they shape civilization itself.
Not just what we think about but how we think is generated from ideas and associations grounded in the books we read. As E.D. Hirsch points out, a child’s early love of reading stands as a proxy for educational achievement, while others explain that reading fosters imagination, curiosity and wonder. As essayist and former editor of The American Scholar Joseph Epstein put it, “In a sense, we are what we read.”
I have no idea what will happen to worldwide literacy, but I know where I stand on the subject. For of the acquisition of books, there is no end. The Canadian physician, historian and bibliophile Sir William Osler once mused that, “It is much simpler to buy books than to read them and easier to read them than to absorb their contents.” Truer words were never spoken.
Despite my wife’s best efforts to keep my book-buying habit in check, our house is now bursting with books. I’ve never had the inclination to count them, but I guess they number in the thousands. I defend my purchases by boldly asserting that, “If it’s books, it doesn’t count as hoarding.” I’m not sure I believe this, and I know my wife doesn’t. But in this time of pandemic, a well-stocked library is a necessity, not unlike a well-stocked larder or wine cellar.
I admire the aesthetic qualities of finely bound editions, and I appreciate antiquarian rarities, first editions or otherwise collectible volumes. But although I understand its appeal to collectors, as a beautiful object or valuable artifact the book holds little interest. I buy books because I intend to read them. As British journalist and physician Theodore Dalrymple says of his own book-buying habits, I am less a collector of books than an aggregator of books.
Books are relatively inexpensive, particularly if one shops at used bookstores, flea markets and thrift stores as I do. One of the joys of shopping at such venues – apart from obvious fiscal considerations – is the lucky find, perhaps a book that one had always meant to read, or the serendipitous stumbling across a volume that perfectly matches one’s current interests. Bibliophiles are always on the hunt, and unread books in one’s library can quickly amass faster than the ability to read them. As the 17th century English poet and MP Andrew Marvell (a contemporary of Milton’s) wrote, “Had we but world enough and time…”
When new friends visit our house, particularly if they don’t share my passion for the printed page, their natural question is, “Have you read all these books?” The candid answer is a simple “No,” but I feel the unadorned truth requires a word of explanation. I tend to mumble something about good intentions, or how I need many of these volumes for research, or I say something like, “Think of the books I’ve read but which aren’t in my library.”
In moments of cowardice, I even blame my wife, a well-read woman who owns many of the books. Or else I justify my library by quoting Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine poet and essayist, who said that, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” If the visitor is still dubious, I pull out Germany’s 18th century giant, Goethe: “Libraries should be like a well-tended orchard, with some fruit ripe for the picking, some fruit maturing on the tree, and other fruit rotting and fertilizing the ground.”
Most bibliophiles freely admit their book collecting is a sort of obsession. Thankfully, it has not yet been diagnosed as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. The American industrialist Benjamin Franklin Thomas described his grandfather as a “person touched early by the gentlest of infirmities, bibliomania.” Whether we are collecting books or merely acquiring them, there truly is no end.
Perhaps the most comprehensive history of the eccentricities of book collecting is Nicholas Brisbanes’ A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. In it Brisbanes documents the careers of various individuals afflicted with this malady. Among the most remarkable was that of Stephen Blumberg, an American who stole nearly 24,000 rarities from 268 libraries worth an estimated US$20 million.
While awaiting trial in prison, the now-renowned thief was visited by a Mafia Don. Why, asked the puzzled gangster, would a man of your abilities waste his talents on books, rather than stealing diamonds and gems, which pay much better? Blumberg answered, “I never took the books to sell. The idea was to keep them.” The mobster abruptly ended the conversation. Recounted Blumberg: “He decided I was really crazy.”
Today, our pandemic-induced lockdown brings to mind Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough At Last”. In it Burgess Meredith played Henry Bemis, a “bookish little man whose passion is the printed page” but who lacks the time to indulge his obsession. Bemis survives the episode’s subsequent nuclear holocaust and discovers the public library where, miraculously, the books all remain intact. But just as he is about to embark eagerly on his new, uninterrupted lifelong reading program, Bemis stumbles and breaks his glasses. Without them, he is nearly blind. The episode ends with Bemis in tears, proclaiming, “That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all. There was all the time I needed.”
Be careful what you wish for: Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis in The Twilight Zone contemplating not a world without books, but books without a world.
The moral of this cautionary tale is that we had better be careful what we wish for. As St. Theresa of Avilla is reputed to have said, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” Like Henry Bemis, the pandemic has provided bibliophiles everywhere with “time enough at last.” As Rod Serling’s parable teaches, the fulfillment of our desires often comes with a terrible price.
In our case, that price includes the yawning fear that ours might be the last generation to truly appreciate books. If that worry is prescient, not only is my book collection likely to end up in a shredder or incinerator, but its priceless contents will no longer enrich and shape young minds. Yet, despite the cottage industry devoted to modelling the withering of books and even literacy, here I see reason for hope.
Some of my younger friends have told me – using that patient but patronizing register of speech that youth reserves for especially dull-witted older people – that my preference for printed words over reading on-screen is merely a generational bias. They maintain there is nothing inherently different about reading texts electronically. They may have a point. In another of her books, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in A Digital World, Wolf weighs the competing evidence and maintains we possess a “biliterate” reading brain, capable of in-depth reading across media. It is a thought-provoking thesis.
That still does not address whether non-written communication will displace the written word altogether. Here too, I’ve encountered reasons for optimism, anecdotal though they might be. The three grandchildren of a friend of mine have been showered virtually since birth with pricey electronic devices and the associated apps and subscriptions. They’ve been bombarded with everything from Mario Brothers to those unsettling products in which education, play, marketing and sales all come together, a seamless continuum from lessons to Lego to credit card. Actual reading is the least of it. These families would appear the very model of the slide towards a post-literate world – prosperous enough to afford all the digital gizmos and hip enough to want them.
And yet, my friend has discovered to her delight and relief, all three grandkids easily accepted printed books as soon as they were proffered and now read routinely if not voraciously. One of them likes nothing better than trips with his devoted mom to the public library, where he hunts for new selections on subjects that have popped into his head since the last visit. Another devours hockey books, and a third excitedly recounts every scene from an adventure novel set on a mysterious island. As they read, smartphones and tablets lie scattered, the giant-screen TV is dark and radio-controlled toys sit abandoned. Their young brains are clearly mastering the process of transforming written symbols into a vivid world of sights, sounds, events and plot – existing entirely in their minds, yet as exciting and real as any of the digital stuff.
It’s a joy to watch. And it gives me hope. For if they and others like them keep this up, there could still be a market for my book collection after all.
Patrick Keeney is associate editor of C2C Journal and a visiting scholar at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.