Author’s Note: This is a slightly revised version of the Presidential Address delivered to the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Southern Section, in November 2004. At that time, the iPhone was but a gleam in Steve Jobs’s eye. As we theorize about the many ills facing our nation’s youth (and their possible remedies), it is important to remember what is gained by a simple experience that is becoming foreign to many: reading printed books.
One of my favorite essays among my many favorite essays by C. S. Lewis is his “On the Reading of Old Books,” in which he asserts the importance of going to the ancient primary sources. I thrill with agreement when he says the best defense against error is “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” Yet when he says, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between,” it’s hard to avoid the depressing sense that the era when such advice would have struck a chord is forever gone. The pressing issue now is not what books we should read, but whether the generations to come are going to be reading books at all. That is the war we are fighting, a war for the minds and souls of our students and our children. Tonight I want to reflect on the importance of what I have called “Tactile Interface”—that is to say (with apologies to those who were expecting something racier), the experience of holding a book in your hand and reading it.
Let me first, however, make the case against the written or printed word in general and the codex in particular. I think many in this room would agree that the greatest work of Western literature is, satisfyingly enough, the first: The Iliad. What role writing played in the composition of this epic is, obviously, a matter of hot debate; although Homer was my first classical love, one of the reasons I became a Latinist rather than a Hellenist was precisely because I didn’t want to have deal with that debate—I just wanted to read Homer, as the Romans did. But even if writing played some part in the composition of the Iliad, no one can now deny that it arose out of a rich, centuries-old tradition of oral poetry.
Sung poetry preceded writing in the history of the race as surely as lullabies and nursery rhymes precede reading in the history of each child. The written word, like the first ship, did represent a sort of Fall from the Golden Age. As Socrates’ Egyptian king prophesies in the Phaedrus (275), it has had a devastating effect on the power of memory. And as poetry first arose from the mind and voice without the mediation of writing, so absorption into the mind and voice is its ultimate purpose. I don’t feel a poem is truly my own unless I know it by heart. The paper and ink are a means to that end. In a more trivial vein, I love my iPod, that tiny magical metal box which lets me listen to audiobooks while engaged in otherwise intensely boring activities. Not all interface needs to be tactile.
One could also argue that the great hallmark of modernity, the computer, in some ways facilitates a return to earlier modes of composition. When I first created my web site five years ago, at the training session for clueless technophobes I made the mistake of referring to a “web page.” I was informed that we don’t say “web PAGE,” for the model is not the codex but the SCROLL. And to replicate an even earlier phase of composition, the computer, like the pre-literate bard, makes possible infinite, undetectable revisions. It is a completely fluid medium, at least for those who can remember how to upload things to their web page—I mean “site.” And frankly, without the word processor, I’m not sure that I, a compulsive editor and fiddler, could have stood to work in a writing-intensive field. In high school, I typed my papers on my father’s old manual Royal typewriter, an artefact whose sibling is now on display across from the Mammoth bones in Baylor’s Mayborn Museum. My children stare wide-eyed at this exotic creature with its hammers all jammed together. I have no desire to go back. Used properly, the computer is an incredible blessing.
But there’s a paradox here. Given that the computer allows for infinite revision, innumerable seamless stitchings and unstitchings of words until the perfect locution is found, why is it that people can’t write anymore? The answer, I believe, is the conservative old fogey one with which I began: it’s because they don’t read anymore. Let us think for a moment of what a book offers and what is lost when we reject that gift.
First, the printed page may have the disadvantage of inflexibility, but it has the advantage of permanence. It is a tangible and incontrovertible record of the past. How quaintly old-fashioned now seem the “Memory Hole” in Orwell’s 1984, or the bonfires of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, into which actual printed materials had to be thrown and physically burned. A paperless society could achieve the same effect with a few clicks of the mouse. Books can go through revised printings removing a bit of offensive material, yes, but the originals still stand as a reminder. As an example, I was deeply affected in my childhood by Dr. Seuss’s dystopian fable, The Lorax, in which the title character rightly accuses the evil entrepreneur of wrecking the environment, causing the exodus of the adorable humming-fish from their now polluted pond. The Lorax complains,
So I’m sending them off. Oh, their future is dreary;
They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary
In search of some water that isn’t so smeary.
I hear things are just as bad as up in Lake Erie.
I happened to be flipping through a modern reprint of this book at Barnes and Noble and noticed that this quatrain had turned into a triplet. The line about Lake Erie had vanished, without leaving a trace! One can only guess at the political maneuvering behind this act of censorship. I understand that the cleaning of Lake Erie has been a triumph of environmentalism—a wonderful thing. And yet, the Lake Erie line was the only one in the entire book that explicitly anchored the fantasy in modern reality; one wonders if that gadfly Lorax may even have played a small role in urging on the purification of the Great Lake. My point is that without that colorful codex from 1971, preserved by my mother for her grandchildren, that piece of history would be lost.
I think also of the glorious scars that actual books can bear, preserving like flies in amber precious scraps of our personal histories. Anne Fadiman in her essay “Never Do That to a Book” speaks of courtly versus carnal lovers of books, those who try to preserve the pristine purity of their beloved codices versus those who engage with them physically. She herself is of the latter camp, treasuring the heirloom copy of Goodnight Moon with a chunk removed by newly budding teeth, the actual egg yolk clinging to the blueberry muffin page of The Joy of Cooking, the inscription in The Biography of a Grizzly given by her then-lover now-husband. It’s an enlightening, if humbling, exercise to look back at my own marginalia from high school and college and grad school, thinking how they are in all-too-familiar handwriting yet seem as if written by a different person—one whose arrogance I blush at but whose energy I would love to recover.
In addition to permanence, books offer us an increasingly rare opportunity for concentration. In his recent book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,1 Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz demonstrates the counterintuitive proposition that the more choices people have, the less happy they become. The reasons for this are twofold. First, one is always questioning whether one has made the right decision, so that every frustration and disappointment leads to self-doubt, self-blame, and fretfulness. Second, and I think more importantly, choosing a path and sticking to it, working through the frustration and disappointment that accompany everything worth doing in this life, and ultimately forgetting yourself in the “flow”—what appropriately-named psychologist Martin Seligman calls “being one with the music”—is one of the two key elements in human happiness. (The other, in case you’re curious, is forgiveness, but that’s another talk entirely. You don’t have to take my word for it. There was an article on this a couple years ago in USA Today.)
The loss of the art and joy of concentration is one reason why television and the Internet can be so pernicious. I leave aside the content of these behemoths, some of which is perfectly wholesome. The habit they inculcate, switching channels or screens with the flick of a finger, is not wholesome. In a beautiful essay entitled “The Revenge of the Scroll”—the title says it all—Alan Jacobs queries, “How many of us, while reading a lengthy and perhaps difficult text online, can resist repeated invitations (highlighted in brightly colored letters, often underlined, and perhaps even blinking or flexing animatedly) to break our concentration and go somewhere else?”2 And when he says “How many of us,” he must be aware that his audience is already confined to those counter-cultural enough to read a book subtitled Moral Essays for the Present Age. If even we cannot resist the alluring distractions of the Internet, who can? And yet the very advantage it offers—infinite choice—is precisely what is in the long run conducive to misery.
Now, I should point out that, although I don’t own a television, I do use the Internet with some frequency. As a handmaid, it is quite useful. For instance, you can easily acquire books and avoid shopping malls, thus freeing up time to read. But it is a lousy mistress. Cocktail parties have their uses too: they are a way to meet or check in with people with whom one might someday have a meaningful conversation. But a diet of cocktail parties alone would be sickening. When the shifting screen becomes a substitute for sustained conversation with a single author, the only hope may be to pull the plug.
I’ve now mentioned two advantages of the physical book: permanence and concentration. Since every speech must have three points, let me add one more: intimacy. It is perhaps paradoxical that some of my best friends—the likes of Ovid, Horace, and Virgil—are men whom in person I might well have disliked and to whom I might have had nothing to say, if they were even willing to speak to me. Yet who is to say whether the voice they project from the page is less “real” than the one that once passed the barrier of their teeth? As Louis Menand points out in a review of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation3—his title, by the way, is “Bad Comma: Lynne Truss’s Strange Grammar” (I’m not sure which title I like better)—anyway, he has some interesting observations about authorial voice:
Writing that has a voice is writing that has something like a personality. But whose personality is it? As with all art, there is no straight road from the product back to the producer. There are writers loved for their humor who are not funny people, and writers admired for their eloquence who swallow their words, never look you in the eye, and can’t seem to finish a sentence. Wisdom on the page correlates with wisdom in the writer about as frequently as a high batting average correlates with a high I.Q. They just seem to have very little to do with one another.
I’m not sure I’d quite agree with such a stark formulation. I’ve had the good fortune of knowing enough people who are wise both in person and on paper to think that there’s at least some correlation. But still, he has a point. What arises from the printed page is a real and living personality; if it happens to be more winsome than that of the person who held the pen or pressed the keys, does that make it less real or valuable or transforming? I get goosebumps when I hear my dead white European male friend Ovid saying, at the end of the Metamorphoses, VIVAM! (“I WILL LIVE!”). The greatest part of him will avoid the grave. The final metamorphosis, that of the author into his text, will bring him immortality. At least, if we classicists have any say in the matter.
Reading is communion with a human mind. Religious writers have recognized in lectio divina, the reflective meditation on a passage of holy writing, one of the primary means of communion with the divine Mind as well. This meditation is one of our deepest needs; often it is the only time we are quiet enough to hear our conscience speaking. Thetolle, lege (“take up and read!”) scene in Augustine’s Confessions (8.12) may be our most dramatic example of a book’s life-transforming power, but parva componere magnis (“to compare small things with great”), I suspect we all have had similar experiences. How different would the history of Western spirituality have been if Augustine, sitting at his computer screen, had been distracted by a little pop-up window saying, “You have new mail”?
I’d like to close with a poem by Emily Dickinson—a poem you undoubtedly know, but as Samuel Johnson observed, people require more often to be reminded than instructed:
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry–
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll–
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul–
How frugal, yes, always. How tactile remains to be seen.