Soon the shelves will be gone, the books sold, leaving only the people, staring mesmerized at their screens. They won’t even notice that the books have been taken away. After libraries have all closed down or become free computer centers, there will still be people like me, feeling like monks in monasteries preserving books in their own private libraries.
There was the Great Flood. There were the Ten Plagues of Egypt. There was the Fall of Rome. There was the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem and the Fall of Constantinople. And then this: The Encyclopedia Britannica went out of print.
While the Simpsons just celebrated its 500th show, the world’s greatest learned publication couldn’t even make it to its 250th anniversary. Will the last person who even knows what Western civilization is please turn out the lights?
I submit that this is the most significant cultural event of the last fifty years. No. Make that a hundred. The New Dark Ages are upon us.
T. S. Eliot ended his poem, “The Hollow Men,” with the words:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but with a whimper.
The sing-song rhythm of the first three lines evokes a child’s careless playground chant, as if Eliot meant to say that the end of the world would be attended with a general lack of awareness that anything significant was really happening–and that, when it did happen, it might go unremarked or even unnoticed.
If you want proof that our own culture is experiencing this very kind of end, just look at the malaise with which we have greeted the Britannica announcement. Note the general cultural yawn directed toward the announcement that they will be suspending their print edition.
The best anyone could do was to give the glib assurance that there was nothing to worry about, since Britannica will continue in an electronic edition.
If someone important to you died, would you find comfort from being told that he or she would continue on in a digital form? No. Encyclopedia Britannica is dead. We now have only its electronic ghost.
Our cultural landscape is fast becoming welter and waste. Before the barbarian onslaught of the computer, one would go to a place and read a thing. There was a library, and it had books, and one went there to read them. Go into a library now, and look to the right, where there are rows of shelves of books, but no people. Then look to the left, where there are rows and rows of people–sitting at computers.
Soon the shelves will be gone, the books sold, leaving only the people, staring mesmerized at their screens. They won’t even notice that the books have been taken away.
Every technological revolution has its benefits—and its casualties. The invention of writing was itself a technological revolution. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato tells a story about the old god Theuth, the inventor of many arts, including arithmetic and geometry. But his greatest discovery, said Plato, “was the use of letters.” He came one day to Thamus, the Egyptian god-king, who dwelt in Thebes. Theuth presented his great invention, writing, to the king. “This,” said Theuth,”will make the Egyptians wiser. It will increase their memory and improve their wit.” But the Egyptian king was not impressed.
“Because these letters are like your own offspring,” he said, “you are blind to their faults. This discovery of yours will only create forgetfulness in the learner’s soul because he will no longer need to use his memory. He will trust to the written characters instead of his memory, and will not remember them himself. These letters of yours may help in reminiscence, but they are not an aid to memory. Your hearers will become, not disciples of the truth, but of a semblance of truth only. They will be hearers of many things, but they will learn nothing.”
This seems a harsh judgment to us today, and yet there is truth in it. Writing brought about many improvements, but it would be false to think that, in moving away from an oral culture where memorization was the primary method of learning, something was not lost.
The invention of letters was followed more than two millenia later by the invention of movable type, a revolution without which the Renaissance and the Reformation would not even have been possible. But with the increase in the availability of the written word, there have been losses once again. For every work of Shakespeare put between covers, there are twenty cheap romance novels. For every book designed to teach an intelligent public, there are fifty newspapers distorting events. And for every learned tome, there are an hundred volumes of pornography.
But over the last twenty years, we have been taking another step. What Marshall McLuhan called the “Gutenburg Galaxy” displaced the Parchment Planet. But as we have moved into the Electronic Era, we find that the actual universe itself cannot contain it.
The material on which we would now inscribe our thoughts and our dreams is not material at all. For at least two millennia we have seen the physical act of writing as a kind of embodiment. Our thoughts were somehow rendered complete by being made incarnate on the written page. They became flesh and dwelt among us.
The digital revolution comes at us with a kind of Gnostic pretense. Far from any kind of embodiment, it promises to liberate us from the physical altogether. Just listen to the justifications from those who have abandoned their books for Kindles or Nooks or iPads:
The “delivery method is convenient.” Amazon.com delivers my books right to my home. And if I go to a bookstore (which is not something I do not as a chore, but something I actually like to do), I have this trick I perform with my arm whereby I lift it vertically in the air, grasp the book on the shelf in my hand, and bring my arm (in another intricate movement) back down again.
After a while you get pretty good at it.
“iPads and Kindles are good for the environment.” Is that before or after the manufacturing plants discharge toxic metals that can cause birth defects into nearby streams, as Apple has been accused of doing in China? Producing books may involve killing trees, but you can grow more trees. But if you’re born with three noses, growing another one won’t do you much good.
You “don’t have to carry fifty pounds of books everywhere.” Neither do I. If I have fifty pounds of books, I’m carrying too many books. Who needs to carry around fifty pounds of books? Some students say they have to carry around fifty pounds of books, but that’s probably more a function of inefficient study practices than anything else. And if you really have to spend a day at school and you’re a commuter and you have to carry around fifty pounds of books, then get a travel bag with wheels.
I will admit that my wife accuses me of carrying around fifty pounds of books, but I deny it. I only carry around, oh, I don’t know, about thirty pounds of books. And I really don’t need them all. I tell my wife I bring them with me for the same reason I bring her: I take comfort from having them there.
“You can highlight things in a kindle that can be easily erased” and “make notes.” Look folks, GET A PENCIL.
My books have a number of distinct advantages over your iPad.
When the stewardess comes around and tells everyone to turn off their electronic devices, I just look around and laugh an evil laugh as all of these people with iPads and Nooks have to stop reading until we reach the right altitude. I, on the other hand, go on reading. The next time I’m on a plane and the stewardess gives this command, I’m going to flag her down and tell her that I can’t find the on/off switch for my print copy of Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy.
And when I get old and die, I can hand on my books to my children. If I have a Kindle, what am I going to do? Hand an old Kindle that will undoubtedly be completely obsolete down to them?
Each one of my books has a history. I buy a lot of used books. The other day a student’s paper fell out of the pages of one old book I had. It had the teacher’s marks and his own amusing responses. It was from the 1950s.
I can sometimes tell something about the previous owner of a book. I have a small set of philosophy books I bought once and I can tell tell that the man who owned them was a smoker. I have imagined that maybe it was a priest, sitting in his study, reading about Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysics.
And if they do not have my own marks and notes, they have the marks and notes of others who owned them before. I buy a lot of used books, and a couple of years ago I bought a used copy of The Idea of Nature, by R. G. Collingwood, online. When I received it, I opened the cover and beheld a bookplate with the name Richard Niebuhr. Niebuhr had marked the book extensively, and so what I had received in the mail was not just a good book, but the thoughts about the book from one of the great Christian thinkers of the 20th century.
A book can almost have a personality. It was written by somebody, and it is about something. Neither of these things can be said of a Kindle, or a Nook, or an iPad. They are not written at all and are not about anything.
After libraries have all closed down or become free computer centers, there will still be people like me, feeling like monks in monasteries preserving books in their own private libraries.
This essay first appeared here in March 2012