Thursday, June 7, 2012

the temperature at which books burn

Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.  - Ray Bradbury, read the interview here.
There seems to be a trend in the bibliotheques, noted in a previous post about music collections, to "go digital" with as much as possible at the expense of tomes already on the shelf and anything from previous decades that may be dogeared but is just as good if not better than what fills up the shelf now and is definitely preferable to the hundreds of copies of Danielle Steels and James Pattersons ordered to satisfy the masses and jettisoned within the next to years.

As many of the Powers That Be in this field seem to really want to be "cool" and also "with it" and not the stodgy chignoned shushers of yore and guardians of dusty crumbling tomes, the trend seems to be more towards becoming like the now-deceased Borders with a cafe atmosphere and tablets and apps and only works put out or repackaged with swankier graphics in the last ten years.

As if "digital" and "edgy" weren't tired ten years ago, but whatever. For those who peruse the bestseller lists, who consolidate collections to one department rather than tailored to the needs of specific communities, cutting corners every which way. Because really, they read industry journals and beach books, they're not quite as interested in learning and being a source of knowledge and inspiration and the expanding of horizons. Yes, there's lots of cool stuff I can find on the Internet, to indulge my geeky love of Elizabethan pamphlets and medieval alchemical texts, but there's something very satisfying about the tactile printed page, of books that have lasted for a couple hundred years or so.

Those aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.

Not that I always swing towards the apocalyptic, but if the gatekeepers shut down, if the Internet blacks out, what are we left with? Formats involving electricity go obsolete quickly, there are disks with information on them that I try to process only to find that my computer no longer has a drive for them or that they sat near a magnetic desensitizer and have been wiped clean, that the Almighty Cloud doesn't work in more censorious countries (and who's to say we're not heading there as it is), texts can evaporate off of one's Kindle, and as we toss things that are old only because of that, I wonder if we in the industrialized world are at risk of losing our collective cultural memory if the shit ever gets real. I couldn't imagine the Library of Alexandria doing this.

Our education system has gone to hell. It’s my idea from now on to stop spending money educating children who are sixteen years old. We should put all that money down into kindergarten. Young children have to be taught how to read and write. If children went into the first grade knowing how to read and write, we’d be set for the future, wouldn’t we? We must not let them go into the fourth and fifth grades not knowing how to read. So we must put out books with educational pictures, or use comics to teach children how to read. When I was five years old, my aunt gave me a copy of a book of wonderful fairy tales called Once Upon a Time, and the first fairy tale in the book is “Beauty and the Beast.” That one story taught me how to read and write because I looked at the picture of that beautiful beast, but I so desperately wanted to read about him too. By the time I was six years old, I had learned how to read and write.

We should forget about teaching children mathematics. They’re not going to use it ever in their lives. Give them simple arithmetic—one plus one is two, and how to divide, and how to subtract. Those are simple things that can be taught quickly. But no mathematics because they are never going to use it, never in their lives, unless they are going to be scientists, and then they can simply learn it later. My brother, for example, didn’t do well in school, but when he was in his twenties, he needed a job with the Bureau of Power and Light. He got a book about mathematics and electricity and he read it and educated himself and got the job. If you are bright, you will learn how to educate yourself with mathematics if you need it. But the average child never will. So it must be reading and writing. Those are the important things. And by the time children are six, they are completely educated and then they can educate themselves. The library will be the place where they grow up.

One of my acquaintance is an education major and she tells me that The Kids are not being taught fiction anymore because it's deemed somewhat pointless by the current wave of academics. I read literature in part because it taps into the universal desires and struggles of humanity, it tells incredibly powerful stories and provides metaphor for the daily experience, has taught me empathy and helped me understand the inner life of people halfway around the globe or who lived long before I walked this earth. It's strangely comforting to know that people haven't changed that much fundamentally even if their culture and way of living was vastly different from my own. And it fuels one's own imagination. What other thing does that so well besides maybe music or art? But those are getting cut from schools too.

Will it come to a point where we don't need the Fahrenheit 451 firefighters to burn the books because they're already gone. People come to the bibliotheque where I work because we still have tomes on the shelves, and we don't even have that many. The Powers That Be are a little perturbed at this because they'd rather play with apps and order online subscriptions, and we don't get much new stuff, but there's at least three copies of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  It's easier to read disposable substanceless trash on one's Nook on the bus without shame because it has no bodice-ripping cover, and like a survivalist stocking ammo, I find myself snagging copies of books I loved as a kid so that I have something to share with the next generation of nieces and nephews because I know that the books I loved won't be at the library in another ten years.

As a society we've already lost a sense of history, lost interest in the outside world except on the most cursory level and are all too ready to sacrifice freedom, especially the freedom of other people to not have a sucky life, to preserve our compulsive need to be entertained. "Aberrant behavior" such as not engaging in front of the screen and just taking a walk and observing the world is increasingly  looked at as something strange. I hope I'm just a premature kook and not a Cassandra, but this is where my thoughts have gone.  It's hard to not read the literary tea leaves of Bradbury, Huxley, and Orwell to see the tides continue to shift.


  1. Thank you for this important article. I'll post an invaluable resource for online books here that I love, I've read a few of these, always looking for knowledge of the 'old ways', especially books and articles about natural farming and Masanobu Fukuoka..

    I believe in the archaic future; as the society goes down and becomes less free, I trust we'll improvise and develop new ways to navigate and get around the system, get behind (as in turning our back on) the ruling and prevailing system and there'll be a huge underground movement, it's inevitable, I think. The old knowledge may be being taken away, but the elements are the same or similar, we'll write more books.. we'll channel them, conjure them and extract them from our deep knowledge in our bones or compile them, they'll be in the form of notes, snippets and tidbits here and there all over the internet, I think we'll recognize them when we see them. greetings.. a kindred spirit, Naomi

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