This is Not the End of the Book

Posted by on Nov 6, 2012 | 1 comment

I’ve been reading This is Not the End of the Book (Northwestern University Press, 2012), a lively and erudite conversation between writers Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière, both of whom have vast libraries. At the same time, I’m recalling a panel discussion that was held recently at Interlochen Arts Academy about the future of the book. The moderator begins with a question from a woman, to the effect of “Can I ever LOVE a digital book?”

He says “No,” but then he goes on to say that the book, like a memento we bring home from a vacation, is a reminder of an experience we’ve had. It isn’t the experience. It’s only been—what?—slightly over 600 years since Gutenberg.  People must have said, “Oh no! These mechanically produced books lack all the beauty and personality of the hand-made, illuminated manuscripts.” Well, maybe they didn’t say that, but you get the idea.

Eco and Carrière: All media formats are ephemeral. Books last. Books don’t have to be plugged in. If all visual and sound recordings are wiped out, we’ll always have the book. When people have time to carry the emblems of their civilization to safety, it is easier to save scrolls, codices and books than sculptures, paintings.

Me: The book is like a spoon, one of them said. Once it was invented, how could it be improved upon?

Carrière:  A great library always reminds me of the stratifications of a coalmine—full of fossils, tracks, and stories. It’s the herbarium of feelings and passions, the jar in which the dried-up fragments of all human societies are stored.

Me: The question of the book’s fate is bigger than it first appears. The Internet as alternative: everything is available at once. Or sort of. You have to flip back and forth, but it’s there. A book is more stationary. More stolid. It is what it is. It will not morph before your eyes. It is the product of choosing and editing.

Echo: Culture, therefore, is this process of selection. But contemporary culture is quite the opposite. The Internet drowns us in detail about every Calpurnia the world over, on a day-to-day and minute-by-minute basis, to the extent that a kid researching his homework could be forgiven for thinking that Calpurnia was just as important as Caesar.  Computers provide everything without the slightest hierarchy.

Me: Reminds me of the global warming discussions, when both sides of the “argument” are given equal time, instead of giving each only the time that the facts of the matter, agreed upon by the huge preponderance of scientists, deserve. People have to learn how to discern.

Carrière:  But what does memory mean, now that we can access anything about anything, totally unfiltered—an infinite amount of information at the click of a mouse? What is the sense of the word “memory”? One day we’ll be constantly accompanied by an electronic servant able to answer all our questions, including the ones we haven’t even formed. What will be left for us to know?  . . ..

Echo: The art of synthesis.

Carrière: Yes, the act of learning itself…..learning to handle information whose authenticity we can no longer trust. . . . . The internet provides almost no sense of hierarchy, ….so each of us needs not only to check facts, but also to create meaning

Me: Now we’re moving away from the subject of book-as-object, aren’t we?

Rumi:  “We can’t help being thirsty, moving toward the voice of water.”

Me: Ha! Where did Rumi come from? Oh, the voice of water is the Word we’re chasing down, as writers, as readers, the one we want to catch like a fish and put in our creel, or between covers, as it were, and bring it home. But finally we have to eat the word and it becomes ephemeral, entering our being and being who we are.

Echo:  It’s important to learn what info on the Net is reliable: encourage teachers to set their students the homework of finding 10 different sources of information on a certain subject and comparing them. This requires them to exercise their critical faculties with regard to the Internet, and to learn that they can’t take it all at face value.

Me: I like this. But what does this have to do with the book. Oh, I see. We can’t bring the book back as sole visual repository of our wisdom and knowledge. It will always be here, maybe, but there will be all this other information, and fiction and poetry and what-all coming from everywhere, edited and not, filtered and not. The book is one artifact among others.

In a way, that thought is liberating. We contain the book. We may keep its crumbling pages until they’re illegible, but they are only a reminder of what we’ve read. Or if we haven’t yet read it, a reminder of what there is to read, the riches available.

Carrière: I don’t know if you’re familiar with José Bergamin’s wonderful essay on illiteracy? He asks what we have lost in learning to read. What kinds of knowledge did prehistoric peoples (or any illiterate peoples) possess that we have irredeemably lost?

Me: How interesting to think about this.

Carrière:  Learning is what we are burdened with, and which may not always be useful to us. Knowledge is the transformation of that learning into a life experience. So perhaps we can delegate this constantly renewed learning to machines, and focus our energies on knowledge . . . . .Our intelligence is all that’s left to us, and that’s a relief.

Me:  Well, thank Heaven I have my books, because my mind is like a sieve.

I will, don’t you know, keep my Kindle, my IPad, my books. I’ll mostly read books because I can mark them up, turn back easily, fold down multiple pages. What I want for myself: to learn as much as possible, filter and assign meaning and hierarchy based on what I learn, and then, finally, trust my intuitive sense that is able to somehow gather what’s been digested and send it back outward, not exactly through my intellect, but through—what shall I call it?—my heart.





One Comment

  1. Fleda, you ROCK!

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