Friday, December 14, 2007

Dearth and death

I just received Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past in anticipation of nine days of peace, quiet and books, both read and written. For me, reading and writing go together and having no demands on my time and no technological intrusions, other than my laptop, is a long awaited mental retreat.

Proust arrived in a battered and retaped box from Amazon that UPS hadn't managed to destroy. The book was sealed in plastic on cardboard and rested safely within the bulging and opened box about to burst from its hastily applied cellophane tape reinforcement. I fondled the weighty book while reading about much lighter book technology, namely Kindle, also from Amazon (I do hope they protect it if it's going by UPS, especially since it costs $400). The debate from technogeeks, literary Luddites, and everyone in between has been interesting. The geeks decry it's price tag and antique (if anything from 1980 could be considered antique) functionality while the Luddites scream about the death of books and the sensory experience of knowing the heft, tactile sensation and intoxicating scent of dust and cloth and leather bindings embedded between pages that rustle when turned and are marked in the margins with notable quotes and passages. You can't have that with the Kindle. I haven't seen or held one but I do admire the concept of having hundreds of books available anywhere, any time just by touching a few buttons. I'm in the wait and see camp although I do understand and admire the Luddites' position on books while I cringe at the thought of tens of thousands of trees razed and made into books, although no one ever mentions how many trees it takes to made matches or toothpicks or toilet paper.

I want to go back to a time when rag pickers pulled discarded clothing from the streets and alleys and sold them to bookmakers to make the pages on which the classics (and not so classics) were written and survive intact and white as the day they were created instead of the crumbling, yellowed pages of paperbacks that eventually will succumb to the destructive power of the light and the noxious vapors from avid readers whose sticky and salty fingers eagerly turn the pages from chapter to chapter and so to the end. Even the printed word, depending on the quality of paper used, is temporary at best while the impact of the words remain in the mind long after the book is dust or landfill or wrapped around the detritus of life. Kindle may be onto something if it, as some believe, makes reading more accessible to those who prefer the cyberworld to the real world. Reading comprehension test scores, we are told, are declining in the schools and businesses are rife with ignorance. Good thing we have all these tests and measurements of literary ability nowadays so that we can decry the death of literacy publicly and flash the news around the world. Was it so different in the not so distant past?

While it seems the golden age of literature is behind us, I doubt there is that much difference. Children in rural communities went to one-room schoolhouses with the same children from their earliest days until they were released from winter imprisonment to work their families' fields. They could read the Bible and do sums but very few had the literary comprehension of a fifth grader in today's world of standardized tests and variable curricula. Yes, more people go to college today than in the past, but there are also more people in the world now than then. Businesses employed clerks (clarks in Olde England) who could add prodigious lines of sums and get them right every time, poring over crabbed lines of numbers while shivering at their elevated desks perched on tall stools reading by candlelight, but few of them wasted their precious light to read at home and lunch hours were unknown at the time. Some of the people went to lectures and symposiums, but they were either hungry for knowledge or wanted to seem fashionable in a world obsessed with class, caste and fashion. The centuries before the nineteenth were even more ignorant. Most people had a rudimentary education at best and only the middle classes could afford tutors for their children. More people read, but probably with average or below comprehension. And yet, the book did not die.

For the first time in known history, there are more literate people in the world. Being literate doesn't mean always comprehending what is read, but for the first time in millennia the written word is available to more people. No longer is literature the sole province of religion and money; anyone can learn and everyone can own a book or pick one up at a library. Kindle is, at this point, not the printing press that freed the written word from painstaking copyists in monasteries nor is it the first working and affordable home computer, but it is the first reading machine that is easy on the eyes if not on the pocketbook. It is doubtful Kindle is saving the written word and books from death or the world from a dearth of literary comprehension, but it is at least a stab in the right direction.

People who want to read will find a way, whether that means saving money to cruise the local second-hand bookstore or buying leather bound books with gilt edges from a company that sells the classics, new and old. It isn't technology that has degraded literary comprehension or hastened the death of books, but it may be technology that makes books more accessible to those who prefer technology to lugging around their own hefty copy of Proust to read at bus stops, restaurants and breaks at work, or just in bed or on the sofa. Granted, the Kindle's hefty price is a strike against it, but the iPod and MP3 players that made it possible to download and create personal musical mixes once cost quite a bit and they're more affordable now. Give Amazon time to build up its literary database, clean up the clunky look, add color and bring down the price and Kindles may start popping up at restaurants and bus stops more and more, but whatever happens the book and reading will never die.

We may end up in an Outer Limits world where books are data easily accessed by a world-wide networked brain implant but there remain a few hardy souls visiting ghostly libraries to run their fingers lovingly along the edge of pages as they turn them and lose themselves in worlds and realms of fantasy and time among the printed word. When you get right down to it, knowledge comes in many forms and books are just one more form, a form I heartily endorse and enjoy. As long as there are people to tell the stories, they will find a way to pass them along because ultimately it's not the book that matters but the story.

That is all. Disperse.

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