A Dangerous Idea: Teach A Child To Build A Library

Is it possible that it is not yet boring to talk about the end of books, the end of literature, the increasingly (at once obsessive and trite) making rare of what was once considered the English class equivalent of basic math? This Book Death buzz has risen to a roar, and now it is impossible to say the word “book” without someone—often the person with the least over instinct to back it up—claiming, The Book Is Dead. Is this becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Why not join a more optimistic movement: encourage your children to hold and collect books. Teach them that there is something to be valued in a physical book, something which still possesses what economics would term networks effects: happiness, depth, perspective.

Or not. Perhaps we are lazy. Perhaps the battle for books is too steeply raked. In his latest post on Newser, “Can the Book Be Saved?” Michael Wolff put it like this:

So whatever the book is, it now turns into something else. It’s the most basic point about technology: medium is message.

In other words, literature stops now. It becomes classical music. To the extent it exists, it is as inspirational historic artifact. Arguably, this has already been happening with the flight of readers to new technologies. My books become antiques (they lived for many years in an overheated West Side apartment and are, many of them, already quite brittle), mementos of not just my life but of another age. I wonder if my children will lug them around.

Literature stops now. Is this Wolff’s Modest Proposal? But books will not cease to exist. The economics of publishing them has shifted, and will continue to shift, but there will always be a place for publishers as long as there will always be a place for editors. Writers require a team to get their work to the world. This team is called, Publishing.

Maybe some of us want the end of books; is this why we keep talking about it? Wolff references Nicholas Negroponte, who said a few days ago (apropos of whether or not “the book is dead”): “It’s happening. It’s not happening in ten years. It’s happening in five years.”

Let’s consider a few individuals who made an impact on the world, and let’s consider what their relationship to books was: Barack Obama. Salman Rushdie. Gloria Steinem. Martin Luther King. Katharine Graham. John F. Kennedy. Bill Gates. Bono. V.S. Naipaul.  Now consider where in the world where you live, and consider the industry in which you work; now consider who has made a mark in your community. Does he or she have a library?

When you look at what might still be called “the world of ideas,” or even when you flip through shallow blog notes from Davos, one thing which people who have made a mark on the world (might be said to) have in common is this: they understand the importance of knowledge. They have read books. Their politics—or their art—is not based on nothing.

Perhaps I’m naïve. Promoting the creation of libraries might be considered rarefied, elite—or absurd. Yet our public and private libraries are the genomes of our intellectual development. Whether or not they are composed of physical books matters less, maybe, but the thing we have always called a “book” will remain. The experience we have always called “reading” will remain. These things are more important now than ever.

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