It should have been front-page news. It wasn’t, and I don’t know why, because it was the scariest story I’d heard in a long, long time. It was the announcement last month from a private school in Massachusetts called Cushing Academy that the school was selling off or giving away its entire library of 20,000 volumes. The whole collection will be digitalized. The words in the books won’t disappear, I guess, if the system crashes. They’ll just go back to where they came from. Into the clouds.
I don’t use the word “cloud” randomly, by the way. These days, internet visionaries refer to something called “cloud computing” – defined as “the ability to snatch data from anywhere off the web” — from anywhere, using your phone, your laptop, your IPod, your BlackBerry. I think the phrase “cloud computing” is supposed to be a good thing. But to me, clouds have the connotation of fuzziness, of being ephemeral. Turn off your library computer at Cushing, with a click, and the words will disappear into the clouds, waiting for someone to retrieve them. If anyone wants to. Which seems less and less likely.
Book sales of even the bestselling authors are way down. And those bestsellers themselves? The wholesale stores that also sell groceries and lawn furniture and high-def TVs are now selling best-selling books for virtually nothing, They’re just product. And if they don’t turn a profit, they’ll disappear from the CostCo shelves like any product that people don’t want, like chocolate-covered Cheez Doodles
The printed word, it seems, is finally, literally disappearing. I’m watchning it happen up close. A couple of weeks ago in my hometown, I recently had the occasion to attend a short-story reading, part of a regular routine wherein some friends and acquaintances gather to preserve both the age-old tradition of storytelling from books and the convivial drinking of fermented grapes.
The reader on this particular day was a classmate of mine from a university that we both attended many decades ago. He is an educated, erudite man who knows his way around literature, and he used to be an actor. So I was really looking forward to his performance that day, and I was not alone. Sitting by my side was another regular in our little group, the actor Nat Benchley. grandson of Robert Benchley, the Algonquin Roundtable humorist Robert Benchley. As in the Dorothy Parker Algonquin Roundtable of eighty years ago: a group of people who gained fame by sitting around a Manhattan hotel and drinking and gossiping but mostly used to write books and stories and newspaper articles, back when the written word still mattered. It couln d’t happen now; blogging is a solo enterprise.
Anyway: Dan settled into his chair, next to a table piled high with the books we like to read from for our story readings, and brought out….his Kindle. A Kindle, for you Luddites out there, is a “wireless reading device.” Dan dialed up his story, and as Benchley and I exchanged glances, Dan began to read Not by turning pages from a leather-bound volume balanced in his hand; by holding the Kindle in his left hand, like a cellphone, and punching up the pages with the fingers of his right hand. It looked like a guy reading a grocery list from a notepad, checking off items.
Now, I’m sure that the story Dan read that day was a good story. But I can’t, for the life of me, remember what it was about, or who wrote it. John Cheever? Margaret Atwood? F. Scott Fitzgerald? I can’t recall. Maybe if there’d been a cover or a spine for me to look at, the story would have stayed in my head. But I doubt it. Subconsciously, I think that as Dan read the words, and then finished, and clicked off his Kindle, I relegated those words to the clouds. They disappeared. They had no weight. They had no substance. Because they were electronic, somehow, they had less meaning. Another Kindle-wielding friend of mine swears to me that people are reading more now that we have Kindles, but my question is, if that’s even true, what exactly are they reading? Dickens or People magazine?
Now, before you call me just another old guy crying wolf, you should know that I learned about the Cushing library apocalypse not from some grouch telling me about how everything was better in the bygone days, but in conversation with a former student of mine, a 17-year-old girl who is now in 12th grade – and she’s appalled by the Cushing library disappearance. She’s a good writer, and maybe she’ll be a writer someday. She’d like to write words bound in a book, with pages. But the odds grow slimmer that Amanda’s words will appear in book bound with leather and paste.
Hey, I’m all for technological revolutions. Electricity works for me. But usually these cultural adaptations are a little more gradual. When it comes to the printed word, which began on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates when someone around 3000 BC took a reed from the banks of a river and cut it sideways and stamped the shape into river clay, five millennia of tradition is unraveling in a couple of decades — and the stakes are very high. You could even, if you were a truly dire pessimist, say that the words disappearing into the clouds signals the end of civilization, because ancient civilization historians don’t date the beginning of civilization to the first towns, or the first artwork, or the first music. They date it to the invention of the written word. So what do we call the end of the written word? Just another technological transition?
They weren’t literature, those first words and symbols, by the way. They were record-keeping receipts. Maybe they were recording a transaction involving one city’s wheat for another’s beer, since one of the first symbols ever translated in ancient Sumerian stood for an alcoholic beverage. But there’s no doubt those first symbols were stamped into clay so they could be permanent – the last word, so to speak. So that if someone said, “Hey, I didn’t give you 500 jars of beer last Tuesday, I gave you 1,000, you owe me more money,” someone else could day, “No, it was 500. I wrote it down, see?” End of discussion.
It took a few centuries for the written word to produce the first recorded literature, a fanciful epic about a Sumerian king named Gilgamesh that includes all the good stuff: sex, violence, a hero, a quest for knowledge. It took a lot more thousands of years for you to actually turn pages, of course, but even the earliest scrolls had this in common with the books that are disappearing: you held them in your hands. Back then, you didn’t scroll a computer screen; you unwound an actual scroll. Kind of funny how that original word, “scroll,” survives – even when the words we scroll don’t actually exist at all; they’re just pixels.
You can find the Epic of Gilgamesh at a library today, by the way, just as long as you don’t go to Cushing Academy library. But what you can’t find is the love of the written word, the way I found that love expressed at another recent short-story reading in my club.
Remember that table piled high with books? One of them was a forty-year old collection of the short stories of a French writer named Guy deMaupassant. I was about to read one out loud. But first I saw an inscription in the front of the book, It read, in perfectly penned letters, “To Mary: With love and best wishes for a happy holiday season and an especially joyous new year. Also, best wishes for many enjoyable hours of reading a great master in the field – the short story; and in his specialty – describing much of human nature, its funs and its foibles. Love, Loftin, Roseline and Gina. Noel 1962.”
I don’t know who Loftin, Roseline and Gina were, but I do know that if you told them in 1962 that one of our human foibles was that we’d turn our backs on the book within the next half century, they wouldn’t have believed it. After all: where, exactly, can you inscribe a Kindle?