“Cover my eyes and ears, ’til it all disappears…”

“I feel like I spent the day scooping out portions of Mondoville’s memory—lobotomizing an educational institution,” writes Prof Mondo, lamenting a book-cull at his small college library:

We’re getting rid of some 25,000 volumes, somewhere between a quarter and a third of our overall holdings. To be fair, something had to be done. Our building is simply inadequate for our collection, many of the books are obsolescent, and many others hadn’t been opened in years — indeed, a colleague of mine found a set of Thomas Hardy’s works, many of which had unopened pages. The library has been held together with spit and baling wire, thanks to an overworked, underpaid, and insanely dedicated staff.

Furthermore, our students are ever less likely to venture into the stacks. They do their research online, relying on the library’s online databases to find articles and such.

The good prof finds the cull troubling for many reasons, but he ends on this desolate note:

Finally, there was the sense that I was engaged in a kind of intellectual Black Mass, inverting the sacrament that I was meant to perform. I love my students, but I also love the worlds of literature and ideas; indeed, I show my love to my students by offering them these other things I value so much. These books, these ideas in them, matter so much to me that I’m devoting my life to the business of letting those stories and ideas survive another generation. But instead, I spent today making it that much less likely that a Mondovillian might encounter someone’s story or idea, even through a confluence of idleness and serendipity. Education is meant to help the mind grow, and I see libraries as symbols of the growth that has gone before us. Instead, I spent today making our symbol shrink. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the opposite of what I do.

Also today, at the Atlantic Monthly, Megan McArdle makes a not-unrelated observation:

Today, according to Amazon, eBooks have surpassed print books entirely; they are selling more Kindle editions than they are selling from all of their print formats combined. Since April 1st, they’ve sold 105 Kindle books for every 100 print editions.

The speed is remarkable, but the outcome doesn’t surprise me.  I buy almost everything for Kindle now, unless it doesn’t have a Kindle edition, or it has lots of pictures that I want to examine in detail.  Which is to say, not many.  Frequently, if it doesn’t have a Kindle edition, I don’t order it at all.

McArdle is generalizing about trends in reading solely from her own experience, but I don’t mind countering with anecdotes of my own.

* * *

For example, if a pundit needed to research the background of the Icelandic financial crisis, the 2010 book Wasteland with Words: A Social History of Iceland might be a boon. Unfortunately, it’s not available as an e-book. Neither is The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness, the first English-language bio of the author who brought Icelandic culture to the notice of the world. A clever pundit might know to allude to his novels.

If you’re dabbling in verse, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics is indispensable (and addictively browseable). Many of its entries contain better, more, or just different information than you’ll find online. This 1,383-page tome has been in print for nearly 20 years, and apparently it still sells well, but there’s no Kindle edition.

For several years, I’ve wanted my students to read Brian Stone’s translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure. I don’t know why Penguin Classics let it fall out of print. Fortunately, you can buy it used for two bucks or read it for free in hundreds of North American libraries. There’s no Kindle edition.

Last Thanksgiving, I made jawārish, a carrot jam from a 13th-century Islamic cookbook. Published in 2009, Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World is packed with neat recipes and commentary. There’s no Kindle edition.

* * *

“But wait,” I hear yon straw man cry, “who cares about Icelandic social history? Who but you wants to read an encyclopedia entry about the Ultraism movement in Spanish poetry? And seriously, dude, medieval Islamic carrot jam?”

The digital age is supposed to help all of us pursue our passions and explore our intellectual interests. Ostensibly smart people—journalists, especially—shouldn’t endorse only what’s mainstream or popular or shut out sources of information because they don’t appeal to one’s sense of novelty.

It’s troubling for a pundit at The Atlantic to say, essentially, “If it doesn’t exist for my cool new e-reader, then as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t exist.” That’s an admission of willful ignorance—and we already have problems with journalists who can’t see beyond their own worlds.

Besides, medieval Islamic carrot jam is tasty.

* * *

“You must be a Luddite!” Guess again, scarecrow. I share my home with thousands of books, but I’m increasingly unsentimental about them. Becoming Charlemagne is doing well on the Kindle, I’ve self-published an e-book of a translation of a medieval romance, I’m reading Ulysses on my smartphone, and I’m in the market for a 10-inch Android tablet for reading and storing academic PDFs. Liking technology doesn’t make you anti-print. You can be pro-both.

* * *

Another rustle from the straw: “Eventually, everything will be online!”

Verily, I say unto you: Are you so positive that we’ll have several more decades of the stability and prosperity required to digitize “everything” that you’ll bet centuries of accumulated knowledge on it?

I fled grad school 13 years ago, but I’d love to be a budding medievalist now, when I can access online dictionaries for Latin, Old English, and Old Icelandic and browse the Monumenta Germaniae Historica without schlepping over to campus. I’m keenly aware of how much progress universities, government agencies, corporations, and museums have made in digitizing material that many dismiss as obscure.

And yet, two years ago, at the National Park Service archive, I glimpsed just how far we have to go. Around 2,000 of the best photos in their historic image collection are online, but their physical archive holds millions of objects, including posters, newsletters, snapshots, and un-photographed doodads like vintage ranger uniforms. The entire collection was overseen by just two employees. When they weren’t scrambling to fulfilling never-ending requests from commercial publishers and calendar makers, they occasionally found a moment to scan some old slides. At this rate, unless a legislator takes up their cause, most of their collection will languish forever in file drawers.

So if you’re a pundit, a historian, or a photo editor and you’re relying on digitized stuff to tell a story, you’re likely spinning the same yarn as everyone else. To tell a bigger story, to show or say something new, you’ll need to push away from the computer and patiently seek out an archive.

* * *

Megan McArdle concludes:

What will happen to the pleasures of pulling a random book from the shelves of a home where you are a weekend guest?

They’ll be replaced by other pleasures, like instant gratification.  And it’s probably more gain than loss.  But I’m just a little bit sad, all the same.

It’s not just about “pleasures.” What about the brainy kid whose parents are either too poor, too disdainful of education, or just too ignorant to give him a Kindle or an iPad? Yes, nearly anyone who wants Internet access can get it, and inquisitive kids are resourceful kids, and the Internet offers brilliant opportunities for intellectual exploration—but there’s no reason to diminish or destroy one convenient, low-tech, time-tested way to feed the brain.

“But you know,” croaks yon straw man, flailing his arms, “it’s expensive to store books in a big building and pay for a staff to maintain them.” Of course it is—but preserving and propagating knowledge is a core function of a college or university. Most American campuses have dozens of costlier programs and facilities that would wither if anyone were challenged to justify their educational merit.

Harvard isn’t trashing a quarter to one-third of the books in its libraries or turning them into glorified Internet cafes. If your college your kid attends is, you may want to ask a dean why they assume their graduates will never compete against kids with big-name degrees. (You might also ask them: “Would you send your child here?”)

* * *

But then why would most people associate libraries with learning anymore? Ads in D.C. Metro stations tout public libraries as places to take yoga classes and hold meetings, and the library system’s website assures the aliterate that a new library “offers more than just books.” (Whew! No one will think you’re a nerd!)

My own neighborhood branch is extremely popular, and the staff is terrific, but when lawyers in million-dollar homes use their library cards to check out government-subsidized Backyardigans DVDs for their kids, we aren’t exactly living the Carnegie dream.

* * *

Maybe there’s hope. In November, I sat in a bayou and beguiled my seven-year-old nephew with the exploits of Beowulf. Last week, by phone, he told me that during a recent visit to the local library, his quest for a sufficiently gory version of Beowulf led him to books about Theseus and the minotaur, the labors of Hercules, and Odin and Loki.

These books may change the course of his life; they may be a fad. Either way, a first-grader in rural Louisiana senses what pundits and college administrators forget: Random access to analog information is a freedom all its own. The Internet is wondrous, and e-readers are great, but if you let technology circumscribe and define your intellectual world, you literally won’t ever know what you’ve missed.

8 thoughts on ““Cover my eyes and ears, ’til it all disappears…”

  1. An online MGH? How do young mediaevalists engage in the great Grad Student Olympic events, such as deadlifting giant reference books?

    I assume the 100 Yard Uphill Dash with Fully Laden Backpack and Full Cup of Coffee event is still safe.

    More seriously, my problem with the Kindle and other such things boils down to 2 things: marginalia (I love finding other people’s notes in a book), and another-electronic-device syndrome. Sometimes I want to get away from the glowing screen, you know?


  2. So well said. You’re, of course right: one doesn’t need to be either a luddite or an android. One can embrace technology while remaining tied to traditional things, like books. But, you know, I do think it is okay to draw a line. For me, for instance, a guy who is just as “plugged in” as many, I choose to stick with the book over the Kindle. Yeah, I’ll do research online. But for really reading . . . nothing beats the smell of pages over plastic. Maybe finding our technological line and deciding when to abstain from the next big technological thing is necessary, in moderation. Maybe if enough people choose their battle line with this, they will serve as a kind of parachute to the dragster of progress, just slowing it down enough so that we have time to think about what’s changing before we find ourselves overwhelmed.


  3. Having just gotten a Kindle a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot. After doing the biggest cull of my fiction section ever, for space reasons, I was feeling unsentimental and decided to go for it. It has many wonderful uses for me, and for those things I love it, but never will it be preferred over print books, especially not for anything I really care about reading. (But as a way to buy and read contemporary fiction without the guilt of mediocre-to-slightly-good, probably-not-to-be-re-read hardcovers taking up shelf space? Perfect.)

    Things like McArdle’s post remind me that there are many very different kinds of reader, and that lots of people who read “a lot” aren’t necessarily “reading-compatible” with each other.


  4. Thanks for the comments!

    @’nora: Yeah, to me, someone who’s not willing to unplug for a little while is just as weird as someone who uses huffy moral objections to justify never using any of this new technology. (As for the Grad Student Olympics: staring contests with Dante statues never get old.)

    @Chris: I pretty much agree with you, but I didn’t want to make the smell/texture/nostalgia/aesthetic argument because I find it doesn’t persuade e-book evangelists to consider the practical benefits of print. (That said, used bookstores will always be home to my favorite smells in the world.) Also, I wasn’t specific about where I draw the line is because in these discussions, “this is where I draw the line” tends to mean “this is where I think the rest of the world ought to draw the line,” and I don’t want to tell anyone how they can, should, or will read.

    @Nicole: “…there are many different kinds of reader.” Yes! But lately it seems as if people who’ve fallen in love with reading fiction, current affairs, etc., on their e-readers refuse to understand why the rest of us still find print books and libraries not only useful, but vital. Frankly, I don’t want my reading options limited by people who think that whatever’s fine for them must be fine for me.


  5. Thanks for this, Jeff. We face similar problems down here in SW VA, where I serve on our local library’s Board of Trustees. There’s still a huge swath of the country that doesn’t have computers, let alone internet access. They come in use computers but they still want (need?) books as well.


  6. “…when I can access online dictionaries for Latin, Old English, and Old Icelandic and browse the Monumenta Germaniae Historica without schlepping over to campus.”

    To schlep, or not to schlep. You know, I think a whole generation of students is going to lose something very vital with the complacency (dare I say laziness) that digitizing the world might promote.

    Remember the adventure sometimes provided by the “schlepping”? An unexpected meeting of a special someone, or running into a bunch of mates you haven’t seen in some time. Awkward feelings and plans for some hi-jinx all in one schlep. Wow, I miss that!

    Students today should do the “schlepping” once in a while – something extraordinary might happen on the way!


  7. @Matt: Yeah, I think many “e-book evangelists” don’t always get how unplugged people in many rural areas (or in poor areas of suburbs and cities) often are. I’d also add that at a Friends of the Library bookstore in the D.C. suburbs, I regularly see teachers, day-care workers, and parents filling entire shopping carts with used children’s books priced at $1 to $2 each. You can stock an entire classroom library (and reach dozens of children simultaneously) for the cost of one well-intentioned iPad.

    @Jamie: Oh, I’ll never lack for reasons to schlep, but I agree about the importance of going to the library for the adventure of doing so—and for the random discoveries there that can change lives. Plus, as Prof Mondo suggests, being surrounded by all those books is humbling; those endless stacks drives home just how vast and hard-won (and fragile) our current knowledge of the world is.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s