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The Book: Its Enemies and Lovers
Talk Given at the University of Florence
Roberta Kalechofsky, Ph.D.
The book as the principal transmitter of our culture may be dying. Don't look around for signs of this catastrophe. The death throes of a cultural phenomenon are usually invisible. We do not recognize its death until it is too late, but the computer may end the book as we have known it or, at the least, radically change its direction and uses, ending a development of five thousand years, in which time the book has molded our civilization, our individuality, our sensibilities, our spiritual lives, our visions of justice and mercy, our imagination, our love of language, our sense of romance, our sexuality. The book encompasses more of human struggles, ideas, and passions than any other form. More human thought and experience has been put into books than into any other art form. No picture could encompass Plato's The Republic or Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, or The Divine Comedy or the Psalms, or the writings of the biblical prophets, or Virgil's Aenead. Which is not to say that great movies cannot be made of great books--but only of some great books, like Homer's epics--but not the pre-Socratic writings; they can capture the novels of Hardy, but not Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, or Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. In their totality of impact, books cannot be represented by any other art form; they can only be represented by what they are---books.
Which is not to say either that there are no evil books, whose effects are pernicious beyond calculation. Not only can the devil cite scripture, the devil can write scripture. Everything that is the best and the worst thing about books is the same as everything that is the best and the worst thing about language, about us. Books have the power to start wars, kill millions, burn cities, lay waste to the land. An evil book has a hundred million evil tongues, and can bear false witness, as well as people can. It is only an age that does not take the book seriously that dismisses the problem of censorship as beneath consideration in a freedom-loving world, where the Larry Flynts of our world are seen as comrades-in-arms of Socrates and Galileo. It is because civilizations have always recognized the dual force in books that the problem of censorship has always existed, the struggle for control of the printed word---but not its abolishment.
As often as civilizations recognized the problematic power of the book to direct spiritual energies, to destroy the very culture it was born into, they sought to control its power---but rarely to destroy its form. For they also recognized that dangerous as the creation of writing might be, it was the best creation human beings had ever brought forth, the extension of our powers of communication in language, that distinguishing mark of our human nature; and that as it extended our powers of communication, it extended our knowledge of nature and of others; it alleviated the loneliness of the individual who could enter into the lives of others; it gave us a sense of the past as no other art form could. As Leslie W. Dunlap observed in Readings in Library History, "...writing is pre-eminently the art of civilization."
The book is also the story of writing, its expansion from clay tablets and papyrus, from chiselled marks into stone, into scrolls and into books printed and bound by machines. It has changed form and format many times, but it always changed in the direction of expanding powers of expression and representation of reality--until the modern age. It is also the story of libraries, of book lovers who risked their lives to save a manuscript, and of great book collectors who brought financial ruin on themselves in pursuit of rare books, who heroically saved books from fire, war, floods, neglect, and deliberate destruction by enemies. We should not allow the book to disappear without a struggle, to become sublimated by the combined forces of commercialism, inflated hyperbolic journalese, thought reduced to sound bites, language reduced to advertising, and the computer which represents, at this initial stage of its development, the contraction of language and a contracted representation of reality, a reality which is expanded in space but contracted in its powers of interpretation and use of language.
Almost from the beginning, the book was revered for its ability to communicate with the future. Ashurbanipal (668-626 BCE) inherited a love of books through four generations, from his great grandfather. Motivated "for the sake of distant days." he enlarged the Royal Library at Ninevah and turned it into a storehouse which housed information about other civilizations. Twenty-five thousand clay tablets are reputed to have been in the library at Ninevah, twelve of which relate the story of Gilgamesh.
The first advantage writing held for civilization was commercial. From the time the Sumerians invented or discovered writing about five thousand years ago, its value to commerce was recognized and scribes were employed to keep commercial accounts. But almost instantaneously with this use, writing was also used to set down collections of hymns and incantations, mathematical texts and treatises on medicine and astrology. So astounding was the invention of writing, ancient civilizations regarded it as the invention of a divine being, and writing was first placed in the hands of priests, libraries were attached to palaces and temples, as they would later be attached to cathedrals in the Middle Ages. Almost every form of literature, except the love-song, was recorded in the books of Ashurbanipal's library. When Ninevah fell to the Medes in 606 BCE, the library was destroyed. Rediscovered 2500 years later when its books were deciphered, it gave the modern world the epic of Gilgamesh and a knowledge of the Sumerian past. Ashurbanipal had indeed built a library for "the sake of distant days."
Civilizations have always understood that books were a bulwark against transcience. When the Sumerians, who were not a Semitic people, were being destroyed by the Babylonians at the beginning of the second millennium, they created libraries to prevent their non-semitic language from disappearing. When the Babylonians were being conquered by the Assyrians in 1100 BCE they built a library to preserve the record of their lives. In the midst of destruction, they built libraries, for human beings cannot tolerate the impoverishing thought that no record of their civilization will survive. Writing, bound in books and housed in libraries, has sustained records for five millennia.
Civilizations also understood that a thorough way to destroy an enemy was to destroy its library and to leave no record of its reign. Thus, libraries were often targets in a war, and burning a library was probably the first form of censorship. The Assyrians, however, did not destroy the libraries of their enemies; on the contrary, they showed interest in the civilizations they conquered; they absorbed their libraries and eventually translated their clay tablets, creating the first bilingual texts. The Assyrians were fierce warriors, but also our first large-minded book collectors.
By the time of the Romans, so great was the prestige of the library, it is said that Marc Antony gave Cleopatra a library as a gift; nevertheless, the greatest library of his day, founded in Alexandria by one of Alexander's bodyguards, Ptolemy, is said to have been burned by Julius Caesar. World-famous in Caesar's time, it is reputed to have contained 700,000 papyrus scrolls, or the equivalent of 100,000-125,000 books. After its destruction, another library, also doomed, was founded at the Temple of Serapis, and was razed by the Christians in 391 CE.
One of the most ferocious battles in censorship was in the Christian denunciation of pagan learning. But so powerful was the lure of books produced by Hellenic civilization that against their better judgment, monks fell prey to temptation and kept fragments of this learning alive. St. Jerome was prepared to suffer guilt and perhaps damnation in order to read classical literature. Christian Byzantium kept Greek literature alive, until Byzantium was conquered by the Muslims, who then inherited the Greek literature and transmitted it to Western Europe. This story has often been told as one of the great miracles of the survival of a learned tradition, but it is rarely noted that the history of books and libraries is embedded in the history of wars, conquests, empires, and revolutions. When the Arabs conquered Spain in 1171, they built as many as seventy libraries, the largest library being in Cordova, containing the works of Hippocrates and Galen, all of Greek medicine as well as a summary of Arabic medicine. When the Moors were driven from Spain, this enormous collection was destroyed. In 1536, Charles V annihilated the last of the Arabic libraries in Tunis, by burning every book in Arabic. By the time of Phillip 11, Spain possessed no Moors and almost no Arabic literature.
The survival of a manuscript is often a miracle against the odds, sometimes due to a ruthless emperor whose only saving grace was his love of books, or scribal drudges who had little to do except copy manuscripts; but often the survival of learning and books was due to individuals who understood what the future might need from the past. After the Greek school in Athens was closed in 529 CE by Justinian, seven teachers from the school found refuge in Persia. In the middle of the sixth century Persia became the repository of Greek learning, which had practically disappeared in Europe. When the Arabs conquered Persia they found Greek masterpieces translated into Persian, and they became the heirs to both Persian and Greek culture. They built libraries that contained both Persian literature and Greek philosophy. When Jerusalem was burning during the Jewish Wars with the Romans, Ben Zakkai had one modest request of Vespasian: to be allowed to leave Jerusalem with a few disciples to establish a school at Yavneh. Granted this request, he and his disciples kept Jewish books and Jewish learning alive.
The "book business" expanded wonderfully under the Romans. Books were shipped to and from Rome to all parts of the world. Rome had a book market, the Argiletum. The Romans brought back enormous book collections from the East but, ironically, almost all their books were in Greek, the language of the people they conquered. Libraries became fashionable additions to homes. A new tendency began to show itself: books were displayed as status objects. But more importantly, public libraries were established in 33 BCE under Augustus, a major step in the history of the book. The Elder Pliny noted that the talents of men would now be public property. By the fourth century there were twenty-eight public libraries in Rome; the codex began to replace the papyrus rolls; books in Roman libraries could be borrowed or read in reading rooms. The history of the book is also the history of the enfranchisement of the human race, its emergence from ignorance, its access to the intellectual thought and talent of all people, its ticket to intellectual, political and spiritual maturity. Access to books made democracy possible. The invention of the printing press facilitated that process as no other invention could, and democracy is intimately dependent upon literacy. Modern religions arose from the invention of the printing press. Because people could now read the Bible for themselves, the printing press facilitated the Protestant Reformation and led to the concept of religious freedom. The Catholic Church understood the danger and in 1559 for the first time instituted formal censorship, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. However, the Index restricted access to books; it rarely actually destroyed them. By augmenting literacy, the printing press facilitated the rise of the middle class, and in this general upward mobility women emerged as a prominent reading force.
But the invention of the printing press brought with it perils for the book. The great tradition of handwritten and illuminated texts was eroded; calligraphy became expendable; the book as an aesthetic object gradually became relegated mostly to children's literature, where illustrations are still considered an asset. Worse, errors and lies transmitted into written texts acquired an immortality. By this time, the written tradition had such prestige in the West, the dangerous habit of pious credulity in the printed word took root. What was needed to combat it was not only to know how to read, but to know how to read critically, which is a difficult and sometimes tedious thing to do. Gradually, books "for entertainment" would split off from "books for learning," and a hierarchy of readers would come into being, one in which "serious" books and "serious" readers eventually would become commercially challenged and defensive.
Until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, few individuals could own a book. The book depended upon the library, whether it was in the private home of Cicero or in a monastery or in a publically endowed library. During the high middle ages in Europe the greatest libraries were attached to the great cathedrals, Rheims, Chartres, Verona. A reverent piety for the book developed. Richard deBury wrote the Philobiblon, or The Love of Books in the 14th century, in which he declared that caring for and preparing new books was rendering service to God, particularly if it were a holy book. His writing is filled with caution and advice on how to handle and store books, not to read a book with a running nose, or with dirty hands and nails, or to eat over an open book. Each book was to be handled as if it were Scripture. Learning was seen as akin to praying, as a mystical experience in which one sought the knowledge of God, an attitude expressed in Jean LeClerque's book about monastic studies, The Love of God and The Pursuit of Learning.
By the time of the Renaissance, the book was acknowledged as the greatest container of the human spirit and it found its greatest lover in Petrarch, whose reputation as a poet has eclipsed his reputation as a book collector. Petrarch travelled from 1329-1337 throughout Europe to collect books and founded libraries at Vaucluse and at Parma. He has been described as travelling with "bales of manuscripts in a long cavalcade."
The greatest flowering of book collecting came in the Renaissance: great libraries were established by book fanatics such as Petrarch, Cardinal Bessarion, Frederick of Montefeltro whose library in Urbino is now housed in the Vatican; Niccolo Niccoli, whose passion was luckily financed by Cosimo de Medici. The Italian Renaissance allowed the age to combine its two great passions: buildings and books. Poet, lover, and book collector, Petrarch exemplifies the relationship between sexual and intellectual lust, for it is said that his love of books was ignited by his sight of Laura, which inspired him to write and, being inspired to write, to read and collect books. Intellect and eros have a twin source in libidinal energy. In Forbidden Knowledge, Roger Shattuck notes that "Our yearning for knowledge was long ago dubbed libido sciendi, a term that insists on the analogy between curiosity and sexual desire." In his satire on academia and celebration of learning in The Notebooks of Lana Skimnest, Anselm Atkins describes the intoxicating physicality of books.
"Book shelves are in her blood, in nerves engrammed: smells of paper and binding glue, chalk smell, readers, geographies, lined paper, paste of cedar pencils, wax crayons, ink, desks, books, smells of chalk and books. Hear O Lana Skimnest! In this House all civilization encysts, thought congeals, word entombs. This place shall be called the House of Books: serve and honor all thy days, thee and thy students after thee. Oh vault of culture, thesaurus, treasure, cache, guarded fleece, glistening ore! Oh molten eruption of learning, cooled encyclopedic concretion, lexical vein, rich node, mother lode, milk of lore, breasts of knowledge, exuberant overflow, garden rivers, riverrun!"
Less heatedly, most human beings have experienced the warmth and physical comfort of a book read in a favorite chair or propped up in bed, the child reading in her favorite corner, the rapture of reading on a rainy day, or reading a compelling novel through a winter storm. We carry books about with us on airplanes, in boats, on picnics, under trees, in a hammock on summer days, or keep them next to our bed during a winter cold. They are our reliable companions, easy to pack, easy to carry, the most mobile and portable form of our world, of other worlds and places, of lost and found civilizations. Touch is the most intimate of the senses, and the physicality of the book allows it to embed characters, plots, places, in bodily memory the way a dancer remembers a dance with muscle memory.
At all times, the book depended for its survival on those who loved the past, or wished to preserve the record of their lives for "the sake of distant days," or possessed what Elias Canetti called "the conscience of words." Christianity understood that to triumph over Hellenic civilization it had to destroy its books, that the preservation of a civilization was in the preservation of its language, but it could not bring itself to utterly do it: monks, motivated by spiritual needs or delights antithetical to the currents of their day, kept alive scraps of pagan literature. The epic of Beowulf was saved by an obscure monk.
Because of the rapid diffusion of printed material by the seventeenth century, censorship became a pressing problem. In the Areopagetica, John Milton formulated the argument against censorship for the modern world.
"For books...do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life."
We are the heirs of Milton's faith in the book and in the liberty of ideas; we are also the heirs of his pious faith in the "marketplace of ideas." Milton lived before print and electronic technology made the rapid spread of deadly propaganda and of "bad" books possible, more posssible than ever before. He understood that human beings might differ even to the point of combat, but he assumed an intellectual tradition of "discreet and judicious readers" who would be able to tell a "bad" book from a "good" book or, if being infected by a bad book, would be cured by a good book. "Bad books," in fact, he reasoned, "serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate." A "bad book," he wrote, was like bad meat: it would make its consumer sick and being sick the consumer would seek a cure.
"...that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary."
This is the faith which has guided Western civilization in its search for the optimal freedom of press and of speech. It is a faith based on the idea that the world is ultimately governed by truth, that truth is more powerful than falsehood, and that liberty and truth are wedded to each other. "...you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." (John, 8:33) It is a great faith, but one which does not reckon with the reality that the world is epistemologically unstable. Shakespeare knew that when he showed Othello undone by a lie. We inherited Milton's faith in the freedom of the press, but not his faith that the world is governed by a truth that is related to our liberty. Our freedom of press and of speech has no mooring in any faith of any kind, nor in “the conscience of words.” Few of us today believe that the truth is stronger than the lie. In Power in Men, Joyce Cary wrote:
Truth is not stronger than falsehood. A well-directed lie can overwhelm it. Truth is not designed for any special purpose, to be impregnable or attractive, and lies are like weapons, invented only to kill....Lies are universal. Greater power of expression in democracies probably increases both the number and force of the lies which continually bombard each other and the truth.
The enormous capacity for propaganda, for lies and for slander in the modern world, whether in the printed or the electronic word, keenly now unveils the epistemological instability that has always been at the heart of the world. The perception of this unpleasant fact was hidden beneath our faith in truth. Now it is no longer a matter of "the lie" battling "the truth" as in some old fashioned allegory; it is no longer a matter of the freedom of the press,but of the power of the printed word to persuade, to change, to influence, to direct, to control. Power, speed, influence, volatility, and profitablity--these are the qualities, separately or in combination, that publishers and purveyors of Milton's faith in the unguided liberty of the press seek. But Milton also believed that freedom had to be anchored in temperance, reponsibility and learning. The people he quarreled with, combatted and hated, also belonged to a learned community who believed in these values. We have excised one virtue from Milton's discourse on freedom of the press, and discarded the rest of the argument. We are thus left with the only argument of more and more freedom to combat "bad books"; that if we cannot prevent "bad books" from being published, neither will the publication of "good books" be prevented. But the survival of the great book, the "good book," in Milton's phrase is in danger of being deluged by bad books because of the very success of commercial publishing; and modern censorship is now exercised in uncanny and unobvious ways. Institutional censorship was repellant but usually predictable; it also could often be bargained with, bribed and cajoled. Furthermore, as Robert Darnton and Daniel Roche illustrate in their study of the press in revolutionary France, Revolution In Print, censorship could not flagrantly oppose public opinion. This, however, is only possible when the public has access to the decisions of the censors, and know what literature it is being denied. The public today has little idea of censorship that is exercised by commercial pressures and harassment lawsuits. Publishers now include indemnification clauses which means that the writer of an article or a book will have to assume all legal costs in the event of a lawsuit. The possibilility of a lawsuit inevitably makes writers cautious.
Censors of whatever kind represent a privileged group, whether selected by government or self selected because they have the money and the power. It is in their distance from community interests and the difficulty of the community in acquiring knowledge of who the censors are and how they operate, that modern forms of censorship become inimical.
The enemies of the book seem always to have been instutionalized or privileged powers, while the lovers of the book, whether they came from institutionalized or privileged power, were usually single individuals. The privileged powers today in the Western world in the book's struggle for survival do not reside in government, monarchy or church, but in the diffused and arrayed forces of commercialism, the media and technocracy. Liberty itself has come to be one of the enemies of the book, freedom dispossessed of honor and learning, yoked to commercialism and the concept of the "bottom line." Milton called a good book, "the image of God, as it were, in the eye." We call a book "a product." What a decline! We talk of packaging, advertising, and promoting books in the "marketplace of ideas," like selling underwear at a bazaar. Milton believed in the triumph of "the good book" over the "bad book," but in the capitalist economy cheap books drive out good books, like cheap money drives out good money. The model for the book publishing business in the United States is Hollywood, with its concept of the "blockbuster book," based on the the "blockbuster movie" that is heavily promoted in order to pay for less commercially viable books or movies. In their sociological study of the publishing world, Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing, the authors (Lewis A. Cosee, Charles Kadushin, Walter W. Powell) write: "With the exception of best selling authors and widely promoted media tie-ins...books are unknown and uncertain properties." Consequently, many writers today, in addition to their fear of legal harrassment, suffer the subliminal censorship of death by deluge.
A hundred and fifty years ago, publishing was a cottage industry, run by two or three people at most. Printers and booksellers often were also the publishers. A modern publishing firm, with its complex specialists of readers, editors, designers, sales people, publicists and printers, would astonish 18th and 19th century publishers. New Grub Street by George Gissing, written in 1891 captures the transitional moment when books became a trade, and writers became divided into two categories. Jasper, the protagonist of New Grub Street, states the theme:
Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income.....I tell you writing is a business....There's no question of the divine afflatus; that belongs to another sphere of life. We talk of literature as a trade, not of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare....I don't advocate the propagation of vicious literature; I speak only of good, coarse, marketable stuff for the world's vulgar.
The commercial aspects of book publishing today affects every step of how a book is handled or managed, what kind of books get written, and which writers get published, the amount of money a publisher will devote to a book, the quality of its printing and the output of money to publicize it. If a publisher decides that he has made a mistake in publishing a book, he can let the book die before it sees the light of day. Many books are aborted because the publisher decides it was a bad commercial investment. Destroying books, like dumping milk if it is overproduced, or burning cows if they have not been properly reared, is considered good business. This behavior is regarded as "rationalizing" the marketing process. Cosee, Kadushin and Powell estimate that in the United States one hundred million paperbacks a year are destroyed. "Few other enterprises routinely rely on the destruction of half their products to clear the market."
The fate of the non-commercial book sometimes resembles the fate of the playwright in Bob Fosse's movie, “All That Jazz..” As the playwright lies dying from a heart attack in a hospital, he has a revelation that the producers of his play will celebrate his death because it will allow them to cancel it and write it off as a tax-loss. The dark knowledge that he is worth more dead than alive bursts his heart. When the "good, coarse, marketable stuff" overwhelms the Homers and Shakespeares, we arrive at "censorship by deluge."
Neither life nor genius nor great books can be rationalized into the commercial mold, and those who wish to go into the book business for the sake of the honor of literature have to be prepared to deal with the irrational course of genius. Luckily, even in this age of suffocating commercialism in the publishing business, there are still editors and publishers who do that. The remarkable fact is that many good books continue to be published. Quite a few, though not all, of these books, are published by independent and small press publishers whose devotion to "good" books gave our civilization some of its great editors and publishers. James Laughlin of New Directions, published Ezra Pound, Williams Carlos Williams, Djuna Barnes, H.D., Charles Reznikoff, Delmore Schwartz, James Purdy, Tennesse Williams, Henry Miller, Herman Hesse, Thomas Merton, and brought back the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and E. M. Forster, which had been out of print.
Innumerable others have made similar outstanding contributions. Shakespeare and Co. published Ulysses; Hogarth Press published T. S. Eliot and Freud. Much of our greatest literature was self published, such as the work of Robert Burns, William Blake, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Virginia Woolf who founded Hogarth Press with her husband; Zane Grey and Carl Sandburg.
The list is astonishing, yet a commercial press or a writer published by a commercial press command a respectability denied the self published writer or the writer whose work is published by a modest press. Public judgment is not made according to the work, but according to the imprimatur, the sign of the commercial gatekeeper. Nor can the public make any judgment at all, because it almost never has access to or knowledge of the books from small presses. Only twelve percent of published books in the United States are reviewed, and those that are reviewed usually come from the presses who have name recognition to reviewers or review outlets. Librarians and booksellers buy their books on the basis of these reviews, for they often have no other access. The "good" books of self published writers or of independent presses survive willy nilly, like their writers and publishers.
In the small press publishing world, small equals independence and freedom, and usually a willingness to live a penurious existence. When Allan Swallow was asked how he could make a living out of his press, he answered, "It depends what you call a living." Raised in Northwestern Wyoming he had intended to become an engineer, when he felt the "mantle of destiny" fall on his shoulders. It is the same mantle Ashurbanipal and Petrarch felt, the conviction that human destiny is bound up in good books which demand our responsibility. In Culture and Anarchy, Mathew Arnold quotes a statement by Buddha to a disciple:
"Go then, having been delivered, deliver, having been consoled, console, being arrived thyself at the farther bank, enable others to arrive there also."
Without great books, how will we arrive at the farther bank?
Books require habits of mind that are antithetical to the modern temperament, antithetical to the computer age, antithetical to its love of speed as they are antithetical to corporate gigantism. Reading requires attending slowly, being willing to read slowly. The well-read passage, the poem that is digested and assimilated into our beings, is more important than reading fast and reading much. Just as grief has to be lived, as Freud observed, knowledge has to be lived. There is a dangerous process in modern husbandry known as neoteny, where an animal is forced to mature more quickly than is natural for it, eliminating the stages between infancy and adulthood, so that the farmer can bring the animal to market quickly. The computer can effect human intellectual growth in an analogous way, eliminating necessary cognitive stages.
The computer is the gift of a double edged sword to the writer and the publisher. It gives the writer a potential accessibility to an audience around the world; it can restore publishing to its origins as a cottage industry, allowing publishers to publish inexpensively, unencumbered by problems of marketing, promoting, and selling. A manuscript can go from the head of the writer to a reading audience, bypassing the clutter of committees and the gigantism of modern commercial publishing. The computer can give the writer and publisher freedom and independence. But this deliverance may have a price, and it may be the price of the book itself and of its cultural richness. The problem is not so much with the computer, but that the generation that has been raised with the computer was also raised on television, advertising language and movies. This generation does not bring to the computer the tradition of the book that developed over centuries its best qualities of complicated and sinewy thought, subtlety and irony; but rather the media traditions of the last half century, esthetics of shock and novelty, the elements of impermanence. The effect is that of national scattered consciousness, rather than concentrated consciousness. The computer does not invite attention to language and thought. It does not invite concern for language and attention to language. In its appetite for speed and ease in communication, it discards William Carlos Williams' warning that "It is in the minutiae--in the minute organization of the words and their relationships in a composition that the seriousness and value of a work of writing exist...." There are rhythms to understanding, to intellectual and emotional growth. Learning takes place in time: it must undergo cogitation, digestion, rumination. These are not the virtues encouraged by the computer.
The computer is a "yes or no" machine; it cannot handle ambiguity or irony; it has no sense of humor. By its nature, it eliminates almost everything that makes human beings human. In God and Golem, Inc., Herbert Wiener, observed that human beings can handle vague ideas; machines can't. "...in poems, in novels, in paintings the brain seems to find itself able to work very well with material that any computer would have to reject as formless." The computer is tonally deaf. But it is fast. The computer accelerates the worst features of a culture reared on advertising slogans, newsprint and television and which is hypnotized by speed; it advances values antithetical to the book; it destroys the process of literary digestion. The cultural mileu of the book is leisure, not in actual time, but in the concept of time. It is in the book that human beings find their multi-layered reality of emotions, dreams, reveries, fantasies, philosophies, speculations, wit, humor.
I fear that it is too late to persuade the world that the computer should not replace the book, that this essay is being written retrospectively. Every time I hear a politician in the United States bellow a campaign promise that if elected every school child would have a computer, I feel like Symmachus, the prefect of Rome, who pleaded with the Christians in 375 CE not to destroy the statue of Victory: "Grant, I implore you, that we who are old men may leave to posterity that which we received as boys....I do but ask peace for the gods of our fathers...."
Yet writing was in its time a new technology and had to make its way against the venerable oral tradition, which continued side by side with the new technology, and in fact has never died. Narratives in ballad form, dramas, love songs, hymns, are still cherished in the oral tradition. We can learn from this that a new technology need not destroy an old one. Each can have its place for what it does best, if the new technology does not aggressively seek to arrogate to itself the whole field of communication, as the computer does. Those in the computer business like to compare the computer to the invention of the printing press. It's a false comparison, for while the printing press changed the nature of publishing and distribution of the book, it did not eliminate the book, or desire to eliminate it, but in fact to increase and distribute the power of the book.
In the October 4, 1998 issue of The New York Times Book Review section, in a review of Leon Wiesteltier's book, Kaddish, the literary critic Harold Bloom, wrote:
"Many now wonder about the future of all books. I recently declined to participate in a British Library symposium, because I did not understand what experts in software and information retrieval could say to me, or I to them. But a book culture will doubtless die harder than enthusiasts for the coming Age of Information prophesy; a large remnant continues to read, will go on reading and will transmit the discipline to others."
Harold Bloom's division between "information" and "book culture" foreshadows one more intellectual fragmentation: The computer will be the medium of mass communication and education; the benefit to the book is that it will return to its previous status before it was encumbered by gigantism and commercialism, to that small scale of writers, readers and book lovers by which it has always survived. But the modern world will be divided into two ways of knowing: knowledge as power in a superficial and perhaps brutal way, and knowledge as self-realization. The division asks the question: which way of knowing represents the best human interests, which way of knowing represents an understanding of justice, mercy, wisdom and freedom, which knowledge showers its civilization with enlightenment?