The Irony of the Altered Book
JUNE 1, 2017 — read in The Globe and Mail
I had no idea what else could be done with a book until I discovered that "altering" them was already an art form. I learned this in a school library of all places.
Family, colleagues and alumni had gathered following a memorial service for a cherished teacher and friend. The display of intricately sculpted volumes caught my eye and I wandered off to view them more closely.
That this curious collection of slivered, chopped and reconstructed books – whose shelf life had obviously expired – should appear in a library at all was remarkable enough.
It was even more ironic that the English teacher whose life we were celebrating was also an award-winning, internationally known writer of 14 novels and a memoir.
The exhibit, laid on by an art class, enthralled me at first. I couldn't but admire the imagination, patience and skill that went into altering each volume.
One book had been sculpted back into a tree. Its pages were surgically cut, pinched and braided into a spread of branches, with a trunk, a cluster of roots beneath and leaves that were made out of, well, leaves.
Another book had exploded into a mushroom cloud of random words, all linked together now, not in a sentence, but a filigree of paper.
A third opened itself into a secret garden, with delicate paper butterflies attached to silver filaments that suspended them above an intricate rosebush teased out of the pages. It was hard to believe that all this was once nothing more than a book.
A fourth book had been transformed into the Acropolis and a fifth stood on its end, its block of pages whittled into a faint silhouette of a snowy owl.
Maybe it was the sombre occasion that led me to regard the exhibit as something of a memorial itself, its meticulously sculpted pieces a miscellany of little monuments – a requiem for the book, perhaps?
My deceased writer friend was himself fond of cemeteries and sometimes walked among gravestones in search of a name he might give to a fictional character. Bringing the dead back to life, you might say.
I wondered what he would have made of altered books. In his later years, he spoke unhopefully about the decline of books, and so he might have regarded this ingenious display with a mix of wonder and sadness.
I tried to keep an open mind as I surveyed the students' handiwork. But in a time when the traditional book is being replaced by electronic reading alternatives – especially among the young whose digital skills are nothing short of amazing and whose literacy of choice defaults to the computer kind – I could only imagine their artistic detachment as they went about reshaping books into other things.
As electronic devices increasingly provide our access to information and entertainment, is it unreasonable to suppose that one day books will be seen merely as objects – relics from another time, like the hour glass and the fountain pen, reduced to screen icons that indicate functions they themselves no longer perform?
Even in my last years of teaching, the school library's long rows of free-standing shelves were visited less frequently by the month – such is the speed of change – the volumes barely noticed and rarely signed out.
Not that there was ever a time when the library was an adolescent's location of choice; in my own student days, books were altered, too, but more in the sense of vandalized than apotheosized.
Consider the alternative, the Daily Mail reported that 77 million remaindered books in the United Kingdom were sentenced to the pulping machine or the incinerator in 2008.
At least for altered books there's a kind of life after death. These creations were not just recycled, but up-cycled, transformed into works of art – albeit in a different way than their writers might have desired.
But who's to say what's art and what's not?
Maybe the altered book is an emblem of our time – something we'd rather look at than read. Any letters we can still make out are just random black marks, fragmented and meaningless. They aren't even words and that, too, is somehow fitting in a postmodern age.
There are no words we say now when we wish to express feelings that we consider unutterably profound. And there's always an emoji for that.
Yet, for writers of fiction, say, such as my deceased friend, language was all that was ever needed to articulate feelings and ideas, conjure up entire worlds, people them with real characters and tell their stories. Somehow, words never failed them.
When Marshall McLuhan pronounced that the medium was the message, I doubt even he envisaged a world where the medium of the book – its literal medium of paper and cloth binding – would one day provide the raw material for a wordless artifact.
My writer friend would likely not have been pleased to watch his own books go under the knife. Seeing the words he had found and exactly arranged to give meaning, resonance and life to his sentences, seeing them now sliced and torqued into a clever byproduct might have unsettled him a little.
Though, as a man of humour with an ironic turn, he would have smiled at a book being turned into a tree again.
Do I Dare Answer the Overwhelming Questions?
MAY 30, 2013 — read in The Globe and Mail
Retirement is a wake-up call.
I glance back at a life spent in the classroom, knowing I've lived more years than are left to me and that the eternal footman is holding my coat somewhere, snickering.
Do I dare answer the overwhelming questions that drop on my plate? What does a life amount to? What difference did I make? Did I teach my students anything that they remember?
My "vocation" took root from a whim, a maple key twirling in the wind to land anywhere. An English teacher I very much admired told me to consider teaching. Because I already wanted to be him, I did.
I taught English at a good time. I loved literature, and back then it was all in books. I tried to teach my students to read and not scan: to find inference, ambiguity and resonance in the language. I knew I was getting somewhere when they taught me back.
One student in my apprentice years shared his notion that Hamlet balances on a line of irreducible simplicity:
"If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all."
Rhodri Thompson is now a QC barrister in England and a founder of Matrix Chambers, an elite group of lawyers committed to the advancement of international human rights. Does he remember me as I remember him? Likely not. It only matters that I remember him.
Rhodri's reflective-adolescent skills are a little dated now, as am I, superseded by cybertechnology. Students inhabit an accelerating virtual world of multitasking, with its ecosystem of distraction. Like Leacock's horseman, they can leap into the saddle and ride off in all directions at once. They don't have much time for Hamlet while they are being prepared for the workplace.
Unwired teachers are deadwood in this cyberforest, where the kids swing fearlessly from link to link, hardly lighting on one long enough to determine what particular tree of knowledge it is attached to (its fruit is an apple, its serpent yet to be identified).
Today's students call the shots with their astonishing apps, enviable adroitness and digital dexterity, while teachers are driven by the cattle prod of the new mantra: To prepare kids for the digital world, you must abandon the old and embrace the new.
The new is hard to embrace because it is forever renewing itself. The new is insatiable. At times, the snake seems to consume its own tail. For even the most adept digerati in the classroom, there is no rest.
"Kids today won't stand for boredom!" teachers are somewhat needlessly told. But kids never tolerated boredom, and creative teachers, like good quarterbacks, always knew how to call a late signal or just scramble with intent when the lesson plan became a broken play. Now, they must gain yardage on PlayStation 3 or they're sacked.
My shelf life expired overnight. I used a whiteboard, not a Smart Board; I taught from a book, not an iPad; I spoke to my students face-to-face, not online, and I was all thumbs at texting. After a life using a slow cooker, I was taking orders at a drive-thru window: "Will you have fries with your Hamlet?"
I'm lucky to have retired now. The timing was perfect, and my school days are over. But, still, what did they mean?
My first students are now 56 years old. Grandparents, some of them. Several are still in touch. But it's unsettling to think of them in their 50s because that makes you feel like you've been lapped.
Rhodri Thompson is 53. I was 26 when he shared the meaning of Hamlet.
In England, I directed school plays. Death of a Salesman was one. Recently, in London, I met up with Willy Loman. His name is John Riley, and he's now head of Sky News.
Riley looked the same as he did when he was at school, not because he looks young now, but because he looked old then. So at 50 he finally looked his age. Now, at 56, he's older than he looks. He should have played Benjamin Button.
Some didn't live long enough to age. One had cancer, one crashed his motorcycle, and another fell from a balcony during a homecoming party. Several took their own lives.
Arthur Miller wrote that everyone needs to leave a thumbprint. Do my students remember anything I taught them?
Because I subscribe to the belief that education's what's left when all you've been taught is forgotten, I just hope they remember to think for themselves.
Beyond that, they left their thumbprints on me – especially those who permitted themselves to be known, and who made me be myself every day. I miss them.
Now I must deal with this profoundly ambivalent phase, retirement.
What do I look forward to most?
What I also look forward to least. My intimate friend and arch-enemy, Time.
Now I have time to write, to travel, to renew long-ago friendships and to read books I don't have to teach through Xbox.
As for my arch-enemy, his eternal footman can snicker and hold my coat a little longer. I'm not ready yet. But he can take me before he takes any more of those who gave meaning to my work.
Why the Best Technology is Still the Imagination
JULY 21, 2013 — read in The Globe and Mail
It took a child to remind me that in our virtual world of hashtags and apps, avatars and algorithms, the human imagination remains our defining technology. The boy's name was Tyler and he placed stones on top of each other.
Our school was bonding at camp at the start of the academic year, as schools like ours feel they must, but young Tyler did some bonding on his own at the water's edge.
When I first saw his columns of stones, I thought they were another camp activity: drill holes in awkwardly shaped rocks and insert a thin steel rod through them so they'll link together and stand upright. The team that builds the tallest pillar of rocks in the shortest time wins. How else could they have got that way?
By evening on the Thursday we arrived, five columns of standing stones loomed in the gathering darkness. When I asked about them, a student said, "It's Tyler, Sir. It's what he does."
By Saturday, when we boarded the buses for home, he'd put up a dozen or more.
They reminded me of the inukshuks devised by the Inuit to deceive the short-sighted caribou into thinking they'd spotted a group of humans, thereby making them flee in the opposite direction toward the hunters.
But these were more intricate than inukshuks and seemed unaware of the law of gravity. They were stabilized by neither steel rods nor cement. Their adhesive was gravity itself, and they served no practical use whatever. The stones balanced on top of each other simply because they could; all they did was thrust the middle finger at impossibility.
I watched Tyler dig them out of the sand and place them one above the other in the most precarious way imaginable. By giving each stone the least possible contact with the one below it, he risked all with every added stone. A vertical, acrobatic column arose wherein each new rock found its perfect angle and point of rest, extending without disturbing the counterpoise of the whole.
They were an illusion and a paradox, a vision of solid rocks balancing in air, oblivious to the gravity they harnessed.
The boys would gather round the sculptures in the evening after supper and gaze at the moon over the lake, a spontaneous tribe of silent disciples, drawn to Tyler's silhouettes of stone. No one trashed them in the night. They were there in the morning, proud and precarious, the risen sun glinting off their condensation.
I wondered, does creating the stone columns make Tyler an engineer or an artist?
Beyond question, this was art. Ask Henry Moore, another student of the centre of gravity, if his steel and stone sculptures in the parks of capital cities the world over are his expression of the purest imaginable synthesis of idea and form, spirit and body, energy and ethos, and he might have replied, "That is my hope."
I never asked Tyler why he made them. He might only have said, "I wanted to see what they looked like." Like the novelist explaining he wrote the story just to find out what happened.
I imagine that artists, whatever their medium, are the servants as well as the architects of ideas that must find their way to the surface and assume a form. Tyler's stones lay buried in the sand until he dug them out and raised them to a higher plane. They became the best they could be in a world that could really care less, continuing to endure long after the lake's steady ripples sucked out enough sand beneath the bottom stone to dislodge it and collapse the lot into just rocks again. Did he realize what he was doing? At some level he must have, otherwise he wouldn't have done it, even if he was always capable of doing it.
And that evening, sitting around Tyler's stone columns, the silent tribe of pensive adolescents, liberated from the endless beeping distractions of their hardwired and disconnecting culture, might also have contemplated thoughts too deep for words.
Isn't it a function of art to speak when words fail us, to make us feel we're part of something greater than ourselves when we feel reduced and programmed and purposeless? Isn't this Keats's "Beauty is Truth" that revives us and reminds us of the best that can be? Did those boys also feel that, somewhere inside? I don't know.
I thought on the bus home from camp, as we rebooted our smartphones and engaged once more the amorphous and inchoate cyber world, that we were all coming apart again. Each of us withdrawing from the stone circle by the lake to our isolating pods of uncommunication, retreating once more into global connectedness, logging into its comfortable anonymity. Do our words not fail us here, too, but in a different way?
Henry David Thoreau, himself a lover of lakes and ponds, remarked when told that the telegram had just been invented, "They tell us that Maine can now communicate with Texas. But does Maine have anything to say to Texas?"
Tyler's standing stones said something, and they speak now, long after they have returned to the sand. They utter the permanence of the imagination, a priceless piece of technology that costs nothing, arises in the unlikeliest places, and delivers us from the suffocating sands of the daily round and common task.
Stuck in the Future
DECEMBER 1st, 2017 — read in The Voice of Pelham
If you don’t know where you’re going, any road can take you there.
I was thinking of Alice down the rabbit hole recently as I drove around another unfinished Niagara shopping mall, searching for my dentist’s new location. After 30 years in a downtown St. Catharines office, he had removed to this concrete wasteland that I remember once being an orchard.
Weaving my way through a maze of untenanted offices and stores, I counted half a dozen fast-food outlets already up and running. If I get lost, at least I won’t starve to death, I think, as I cut across an empty parking lot that could safely land a 737.
Though right now eating anything was a challenge, and why I needed my dentist.
The two teeth on my partial bridge had snapped off on a raw carrot, and left me looking like Davey Keon when he held the Stanley Cup the last time the Maple Leafs won it.
A little agitated now with my appointment time nearing, I parked outside a barebones office that had people inside and went in for assistance. The receptionist knew of the dental clinic and gave me directions that involved a lot of left turns. I thanked her, re-entered the concrete maze and drove around for another ten minutes until one of the left turns took me straight out of the mall and back onto the highway.
A mile down the road, with the clock ticking, I managed a u-turn and raced back. I found the friendly receptionist again, whose smile vanished when she heard the panic in my voice.
“I’m fifteen minutes late and I have to call my dentist.” What I said next was equal to telling her I was an alien who had misplaced his flying saucer.
“I don’t have a cell phone. Would you be so kind?”
I read her lips as she dialed the number—How does he even breathe? she seemed to be saying.
“I’m definitely getting one, though. Today, in fact.” But she wasn’t listening.
“Yes, he’s here with me now. I’ll draw him a map.”
I felt like the kid who gets separated from his parents in a busy department store, but really I was the guy who fell asleep for 20 years and woke up in a technological age without a lifeline (think Sleeper, but with fewer laughs). I thanked her, took the map and smiled, mouth closed so my toothless grin wouldn’t further unsettle her.
I found the clinic in a section of the mall I hadn’t noticed before. Perhaps it was still being built while I was busy getting lost.
Linda, the dental assistant, greeted me as I walked in the door, as she had done 30 years ago when I first entered the downtown office with rather more teeth in my head than I have now.
“We were going to send out a search party,” she said, laughing. “Did you forget your cell?”
Dr. McKenzie examined my bridge and said the teeth could be re-attached. I could collect it tomorrow. He grinned, displaying a mouth that was full of his own teeth because he had never played hockey without a face-guard. Did I think I could find my way back, he asked?
I laughed, then said I had planned ahead and scattered breadcrumbs along the way; if the pigeons left them alone I’d be fine. I thanked him for waiting.
Driving home I felt distracted and a little lost again, but not because I couldn’t find my way or didn’t own a smartphone. This wasn’t about technology, but missing the familiar. Something I get to do a lot of these days.
If the past is another country, then sometimes the present is too, with so much of the familiar replaced by the new. Almost by the minute, it seems.
Nothing is spared the chop anymore, not even thinking. We’re told there are no truths now, just unreliable constructs. History is a narrative of misrule that’s best forgotten. Language doesn’t work because words mean different things to different people. Art is anyone’s guess, morality is nobody’s business, and rule has become a four-letter word.
Without the familiar, why shouldn’t we feel lost in our actual world and seek asylum in a virtual one? Where are we? was once part and parcel of Who are we?, in a time when place and community helped to identify us. Where are we? is now wherever we want to be, but we go it alone and GPS won’t help us get there.
One day there won’t be a there anymore because it will already be somewhere else.
Change as a means to improvement is always desirable—Dr. McKenzie’s dental office downtown was getting a little long in the tooth itself—but is change all we want to know?
Don’t we need to know that some things—not just the next thing—will still be around tomorrow? That tomorrow there will be neighbours and a friendly wave, libraries and bank tellers, the corner store, someone’s initials in the sidewalk, immovable feasts—and not just the memory that these things once were.
“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that,” said the Queen to Alice.
My nostalgia is less for the past than it is for a future where things might not be around long enough to be missed.
But for now at least, I found someone to show me the way, and someone else who waited patiently until I got there.
Give Words to the Loss
DECEMBER 15th, 2017 — read in The Voice of Pelham
Everything I know about grieving I learned many years ago from my English professor.
Dr. Wilders (pronounced like builders) wasn’t a grief counselor, the name we now give to trained professionals who visit schools and workplaces to provide therapy for the distraught. He was just a teacher at my university in England, and he had this quaint notion that grieving is the therapy.
As a Shakespeare scholar and my graduate advisor, he taught me much. And, often the way with great teachers, his best lessons continue to “impact” on me years after.
We became friends in our time together, and despite being 20 years older, he could give me a good workout on the squash court as well as across the seminar table.
After a match we would withdraw to his college rooms and rehydrate with a gin and tonic or two—no ice, England, remember. And, okay, it was a long time ago.
Following a summer break back home in Toronto, I returned to England for the new term and rang Dr. Wilders to discuss my struggling thesis.
He had worse news of his own.
His 18-year-old daughter, Catherine, had died in a hiking accident in Denmark a fortnight earlier. She was stepping across a makeshift footbridge over a shallow creek when a loose plank came loose, causing her to fall and strike her head on a rock. She never regained consciousness.
I couldn’t find any words to say, despite being an English major, and so Dr. Wilders took over.
“Let’s play some squash,” he said. “And then we can talk about your thesis.”
He dominated the court that afternoon, smacking the ball with deadly accuracy, and sending me all over the floor to retrieve his shots. He won every game.
After our match, we sat in his study and sipped our gin and tonic. He spoke quietly about his family’s grief—his wife’s, his young son’s, his own.
He smiled when he mentioned that on the day he and his wife were informed of their daughter’s fatal accident, a letter addressed to Miss Catherine Wilders arrived at their house. It was from the University of York, congratulating her on being awarded a scholarship to read English.
Was his smile a tip of the hat to life and death getting up to their usual tricks? I didn’t ask. Maybe he was just proud of her.
I wanted to ask if he was angry with God, because I’ve always wondered about God since the time my brother, Michael, aged seven, died of brain cancer. Being only five at the time I was too young to know what it all meant, and I still didn’t know.
I didn’t have to ask him about God, because Dr. Wilders went on to say that he had turned to Shakespeare, not God, to find a shred of meaning in his daughter’s senseless death.
To summon the strength to speak at her funeral, he had re-read King Lear, always his favourite, he said, and now his lifeline.
The only way he could survive his personal wheel of fire, and find some way to carry his family through the ordeal, was to experience all over again the senile king coming to terms with the sudden death of his youngest daughter who had never given up on him despite being banished by his stupid decree.
“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?” the aggrieved king murmurs to Cordelia, as he holds her lifeless body in his arms and kisses her stone-cold face.
Listening to Dr. Wilders I came to realize that he had found in a fictional character who was every inch a King, now reduced to Everyman, a match for his own profound grief.
My professor recited Lear’s words.
Thou wilt come no more.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
“And that’s been my comfort,” Dr. Wilders said. “Now tell me about your thesis.”
Today, I’m older than Dr. Wilders was then, and with the scars of my own share of life’s knocks, I’ve come to understand what he was telling me.
He took comfort in knowing, maybe for the first time, that death comes to us all, even kings, in many different ways, and when it does we lessen our pain by grasping just that—it comes to us all.
We still lack the technology, even in a time when technology has all the answers, to stop death happening or to make it go away. A wise man named Bernard Levin wrote something, way back then, when computers were just a speck on the horizon: Although the microelectronic technological revolution may usher in a paradise upon earth, it will usher it in with the serpent already in residence. The silicon chip will transform everything, except everything that matters, and the rest will still be up to us.
“Give words to grief,” counsels a nobleman, observing the King on his knees. And Lear finds words that say it all.
The greeting card industry supplies us with words for all occasions—births, marriages, anniversaries and deaths. And at other times we find ourselves saying there are no words. It’s a common refrain on social media.
But we must have words. Without words to express our feelings, we turn and face a wall of incomprehension. Dr. Wilders found the words he needed in Shakespeare’s grieving monarch.
The Bard himself is hardly flavour of the month now, though he was never an easy gig. Today, however, he carries a “trigger warning.” Red flags appear next to his name on university course lists—Shakespeare will be spoken during this class, students are cautioned.
When did this happen? At what point did a writer whose understanding of the human heart offered a flotation device to the afflicted when the unthinkable happened and torpedoed their lives, a writer who drew a bead on the selfishness, greed and cruelty that fuel man’s inhumanity to man—when exactly did this writer, and others like him, become triggers of trauma?
Maybe it all began when the justice crusaders in academe surgically removed feeling from the study of literature and replaced it with a politicized agenda.
I recently read, in a Cambridge university professor’s otherwise reasonable defense of trigger warnings for the susceptible, that literary criticism is a discipline that can train students to suspend emotional response and apply analytical skills to that response so they can better understand it.
I never had a teacher who asked me to suspend my emotional response. The best teachers said, quite to the contrary, that if I couldn’t engage my emotional response I would never grasp the work.
Is this perhaps why, in a postmodern classroom or lecture hall, the literary canon is required to carry the banderillas of the bullring—flags to caution the student that their feelings might be engaged, tested and challenged?
I don’t know. We live in sloganized times. I only remember being taught literature in a way that explained my emotional life to me and helped me get closer to understanding myself.
And I remember Dr. Wilders’ invaluable example whenever I need a King Lear to help me weather the storm.
Leaves of Glass
JANUARY 5th, 2018 — read in The Voice of Pelham
Everything comes at a price, though not with a lifetime warranty.
“Progress has never been a bargain,” says Henry Drummond in the famous Monkey Trial case from Inherit the Wind. “Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”
A decade ago I introduced my English class to a revolutionary device that was invented to replace the book. I passed the e-reader around the room, having downloaded The Mayor of Casterbridge, and asked the students to take a turn reading from the device.
One girl looked at it, stroked the unresponsive screen, then stared at me. “So, what else does it do?”
It’s a question Amazon has been answering ever since, releasing successive new version of the Kindle. Today, it provides not only the requisite touch screen, but other applications and features that bring the device ever closer to the physical book it set out to replace.
Now, when you turn the screen page it actually curls back from the top just like a real one. A rustling sound effect would complete the illusion.
In other ways the e-book surpasses the real thing, with an “audible” option that reads the book to you, a rechargeable battery, and backlighting. Its storage capacity, equal to that of a small library, makes it especially convenient in an era of decluttering.
Back in 2008, my students weren’t all that enamoured of the prototype, being accustomed to reading fiction from a book. “I see the words, but I’m not actually reading them,” one student remarked. Another said, “I just finished reading a page and now I can’t remember any of it.”
All that has changed in 10 years. The screen is now the medium of choice in many schools, with “choice” not really an option any more.
Given all the improvements—you can now fall asleep while reading a waterproof Kindle in the bath or by the pool—it’s surprising the e-reader hasn’t cut more drastically into the sale of books. Mega-sales of the likes of Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey and Dan Brown, have helped to keep books afloat in an electronic age. And some people still prefer the physicality of print; they enjoy the feel of the pages, the smell, that sort of thing.
Though one could argue that the e-reader’s sleek casing and empowering touch controls make it sexier than ever. Nicholas Carr tells us in Utopia Is Creepy (2016) that a “captivating interface is the perfect consumer good,” that it “packages the very act of consumption as a product.”
Whatever the reason, e-books continue to make headway. Recent figures reported by The Daily Telegraph indicate that e-book purchases rose to 64 million in 2014 from 57 million in the same period a year earlier; now, with iPads and other interactive tablets offering even more sophisticated alternatives to books, the trend can only continue.
But does it matter how people read? If readers are reading, why should we care if it’s from a book, an e-reader, a tablet or phone. It’s all in the reading, right?
What exactly do we mean by reading in the first place? Are we scanning the text or processing it? There’s a big difference.
An article in the World Economic Forum (October, 2017) reports that an overwhelming percentage of university students prefer to read from a screen, read faster from a screen, finish assignments in a shorter time, and come away with a general understanding of the material. But their grasp of critical detail is significantly poorer than those who read the same text from a book or printed article and take longer to do it.
Speed reduces comprehension and retention. Nothing new there. I think of the proverbial speed-reader of old who finished War and Peace in an hour and said the book was about Russia.
I read differently online than I do the printed page. And if I’ve spent hours reading off a screen, I have to force myself to slow down and concentrate when I pick up a book again. If I want to follow the contours of a sentence, catch the ambiguities and ironies of language use, take time to hear the writer’s voice and listen to what isn’t being said, along with what is, I have to slow down.
Joseph Epstein, who knows a thing or two about writing, having taught literature at the University of Chicago for four decades, remarked that the point of writing is not communication: Pandas, lions, seagulls, after all, communicate—nor is it information, of which the world already has enough. The point is engagement: intellectual, emotional, imaginative, even spiritual.
If I’m reading a work of fiction I must give my imagination time to settle on an evocative sentence, so I can conjure a setting, or a face, hear inflections in the dialogue. The fiction and memoir writing I enjoy most is the kind that makes me do the work.
A novelist, David Bezmozgis, compares the relationship between reader and writer with that of weightlifter and spotter—the reader gets the workout, while the writer only gives a hand when needed.
For that kind of reading we need an undistracted space around us to echo the writer’s voice:
Caught in the dark cathedral
Of your skull, your voice heard
By an internal ear informed by internal abstracts
And what you know by feeling,
To hear that voice, and take time to unspool its narrative thread, we must occupy a deeper, undistracted stillness.
How will a generation of children do all that, when reading on a tablet must compete with all the other things they do on a tablet? Or is the future of reading already mapped out by the multi-award-winning Nosy Crow, with its clamorous midway of bells and whistles, musical feed and animated illustrations, pop-out words and live links to avatar worlds? A recent count showed that Nosy Crow’s mobile apps have been downloaded 130 billion times.
I can only admire the technological acumen, the digital second nature (or maybe now first nature) that child consumers will acquire by immersing themselves in books that do all the heavy lifting. I can foresee these young readers one day encountering a physical book, only to swipe their fingers across its pages and demand to know, “What else does it do?”
I'm reminded of an Isaac Asimov story (likely not available on Nosy Crow) called “The Fun They Had.” It was written for a children’s magazine in 1951 and envisioned schooling in the year 2157. Lessons in Asimov’s futuristic world take place at home with a “mechanical teacher,” programmed precisely for the individual student’s ability, and returning digitally evaluated homework without ever actually seeing the student. The plot turns on the discovery of an old book in a dusty attic, an object that fascinates children who had never heard of a book. They suppose it must have been fun for children a long time ago to be able to read a book, to be able to do it all themselves.
Asimov wrote his story from a sadly obsolete viewpoint, for he believed there is nothing more interactive than a book. Now, electronic interactivity is what learning’s all about. That, and speed, unending distraction, fun, and the extinction of boredom. Whoever said learning is hard work didn’t realize it can be as easy as point and click, swipe and touch.
The single drawback to high-end, waterproof e-readers is their price tag. But, remembering Henry Drummond’s caveat, everything comes at a cost. And while it would be silly to deny that online reading will continue unrestrained, with devices delivering information and distraction more quickly and comprehensively than ever before, I wonder if it will cost us a precious commodity we won’t even miss.
Just as the industrial revolution initiated what many believe is costing us our planet, the technological revolution might lead to the extinction of our literary imaginations.
But the literary imagination will be an easy price to pay if we don’t miss it. And who knows, maybe it will evolve into something better—like clinical reality. If a finger swipe can conjure a genie to make our every wish its command, then what’s left to do but sit back and enjoy the ride?
If this is what we always imagined an ideal world would be like, well, now we don’t even have to imagine it.
And maybe that’s just as well. In any case, we’ve no choice now but to be patient—not a trending virtue, but still—and see if there’s anything we’d like to have back.