With differing motives and for differing reasons, people say the book is dead. For the most part, this is fantasy, or science fiction if you prefer. Certainly speculative. The moldering piles that clutter our attics and basements, garages and cubby holes are testament to the present truth of the matter. But they are, in fact, moldering.
And the piles grow ever smaller as we constrict our lives to fit the new social norms. Without a change in direction, the time will come soon enough when this death is a fact, with or without the intervention of a growing authoritarian state, because the growth of that state will only reduce those numbers faster as the contents of our books become more threatening to authority.
The wonderful conceit of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which once created a furor of indignation in the mind of a public that consumed books by the pound and reveled in the “paperback revolution,” is now being accomplished without heat, and relatively without notice except by some curmudgeons and students of the past. Objecting to the ongoing digitalization of knowledge is considered Luddite—at least by the few who know a little language and less history. This ephemeral technology and its fungible content beg for the postmodernist editor’s hand.
To begin at the beginning is to attempt a Gibbon out of the history of the printed book, but much can be understood simply by watching a recent YouTube posting in that extraordinary series of interviews, “Uncommon Knowledge,” conducted by Peter Robinson for the Hoover Institution, this one with the [choose your own inadequate adjective] amazing Jordan Peterson, called “The Importance of Being Ethical.” The title does not give away the connection to my worry, but it sets the table for the comprehension of it, in more ways than one.
I am inadequate to the task of interpreting the hour of conversation, but a few points are enough to draw the lines. After establishing his bona fides in the Western Tradition, Peterson passionately makes the argument for free speech and the necessity of free speech in a free society. “We think in words.” “There is no difference between speech and thought.” “I don’t think that free speech is a right among other rights.” “We use speech . . . to organize our own psyche.”
Because thinking through the problems we encounter in life can be daunting, we use the social communication of speech as a means of working out the logic of our thoughts. “You have a right to free speech because the entirety of society depends for its ability to adapt to the changing horizon of the future on the free thought of the individuals who compose it.” “Like a free market. In some sense, it is a free market in relationship to thought.”
And the revelations continue. Most who might bother to read this already understand these points, but perhaps not so cogently. It can be thrilling to watch and hear. My own first inference from Peterson’s words is tied to my concern for books. The fragile nature of a digitally interpreted world, its separation from the thought process of mankind, even to its bloodless design to obsolescence, is not simply a danger. It is the beast itself.
Robinson brings Peterson to that key point. Our stories make us: “I don’t think you can look at the world except through a structure of values”; “I believe we see the world through a narrative framework”; “You need a mechanism to prioritize your attention”; “there is no difference between prioritizing your attention and imposing a value structure”; “the mechanisms we use to prioritize our attention are stories.” Yes! The reason why there has been such a sea change in the politics of Western society since World War II is that the universities that educated us and have had command of those “stories” have been largely in the hands of the postmodernists, i.e., the socialists and the Marxists.
I cannot offer any solution to the convenience represented by the tool of digital technology. It is as marvelous as it is terrible. In some ways, I see it as a counterpoint to the wonder of individual freedom itself. Freedom is extremely dangerous, but without it, there is no future. Even the past is lost, as we repeat an endless cycle of obedience to an authority that fears dissent and, with the words made fungible to suit its purpose, may now alter the knowledge of its own actions.
The First Amendment, a statement of principle I have long believed should have been the very first paragraph of the Constitution and not buried at the end nor set apart with lesser concerns, specifically addresses the importance of this freedom: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Books are the means of passing on our small inheritance of knowledge so that it might be added to in the future. If this means is lost, it will be a direct result of our loss of free speech, and with it, free thought. And with that, we will have lost any hope of a better future for our children.