Where It Begins

It would be solipsistic to think it began in our lifetime. Likely it was long before. Then again, to pretend we are not culpable would be absurd. We should look closer at the parts that make the whole.

Most people know about Alexandria and the great library there, and how it was sacked over and again by Romans, Crusaders, Muslims, and whatever passing vandal was in the vicinity. The importance of that tale seems to be in the loss. But in fact, we only know about the wisdom lost because of what was saved and passed on to us.

Much the same is true of the library at Pergamum, which rivaled Alexandria, with its 200,000 volumes (the scrolls of parchment named for the city), seized by Mark Antony and given to Cleopatra. But then there was Antioch, and Nalanda in India, and the Crusaders at work again at Constantinople, and a hundred more to tell. 

Destroying the books has always been a key to destroying a culture. In England, Henry VIII’s looting of Glasney College was not just a strike against Roman Catholic monasteries but a purposeful destruction of the Cornish and Celtic past in Britain, which was gathered and harbored there.

But all that seems so far removed from what is taking place in our living rooms today and it is difficult to make the connection when larger threats loom over us. “Existential,” they call them. But that is the nature of these modern times. Our material wealth has obscured our view and our vision, as we have lost our connection to the sources of that wealth—the history and philosophy that made it possible—and cheapened the value of what we have.

Some of this loss can be tied to technology. The bound volume replaced the scroll, as the printing press replaced the scribe. Now the printed volume has been replaced by the digital facsimile. With each stage, something of the past has been lost in order to gain a “better” future. That is the theory. First the art of illumination and hand lettering, never mind the editorial alterations by the copyist, but then paper making and even typography have been forgotten for the most part.

After 500 years, the letterpress was replaced only half-a-century ago with the offset press, eliminating the typesetter, and the budding Benjamin Franklins in our midst had to find other employment. That was certainly in my own lifetime. Now the digital copy has replaced that. 

Libraries were quick to adopt the space savings of microfiche and then digital printing. No need for the stacks. An electronic screen and a connection were enough.

But what are we losing and what have we lost?

Some time ago, as a 50-year-old bookseller with a family to support, and a sense of dignity to maintain, I spent a day dumpster-diving behind a local historical society. I have found that, throughout my life, when push comes to shove, dignity is often the first to go. A homeless man looking for some cash had come in the shop with a grocery bag filled with old 19th-century pamphlets. “Where did these come from?” I asked, already aware of the stamping on the covers. “A dumpster,” was the reply. And he showed me where. And it was filled with them. Jammed. I went into the society and asked what was going on. 

“Oh,” I was told, “Don’t worry. All of them had been photographically copied. They are saved!” The originals were disintegrating, as wood pulp paper does, and were no longer necessary. Everyone was doing it, you know. In fact, they had probably waited too long. Many had fallen apart. I asked if I could have them. A reluctant “Yes” was had. And thus I spent the day filling boxes from a dumpster and trundling them back to the shop. It wasn’t an economic decision for me, I would say.

Many of these pamphlets were from a renowned Boston printer, John Wilson and his son, including memorials, histories of local buildings, family genealogies, and sources for place names. True, I still have a few hundred of those pamphlets, 30 years later. Happily so. They can still be read. But the microfiche used to copy them has long since been yellowed and distorted, and the machines used to read them can no longer be repaired. 

Now, more recently this story is being repeated by digital means. Neglected books are being scanned, the spines ripped off and the paper pulped. The quality of the content is dismissed by new priorities. And I still haven’t learned my lesson. 

Books can be had by the million on the internet, free of charge. There is no economy in that, either. The profit is in the machines and software needed to read them. And those will soon be obsolete and new ones required. But to what purpose? 

The Barnes and Noble at the Prudential Center in Boston has now closed after 40 years or so. Many others of the chain have already succumbed, just as they were themselves the reason why hundreds of older independent bookshops closed when the chain first opened. My own shop, nearby, survived then by relying less on new books and more on the used. For me, that was a good thing. It renewed my love of bookselling. I had quickly grown to detest the processing of bestsellers and remainders marketed like square containers of cereal with a sell-by date. But now the fewer numbers of people who still read novels would prefer to use an electronic device, saving space in their smaller apartments, and leaving less for the dumpster when they move.

And that is only a small part of the diminishment. The purposeful addiction to the internet and social media leaves little time for reading and contemplation. And even most of those who do read have little thought for typography, or papermaking, or Pergamum. 

But here’s the thing. It’s all one piece. History is no longer taught. Nor is philosophy. It’s too difficult. It’s rough and not absolute. Argumentative if you think otherwise. Disagreeable when you are wrong. In its place now is politics, where there is only one truth. No need for all the others. And in any case, reading history and philosophy is a chore if you are used to soundbites. And lugging books around can be a pain—but they are yours, you know, and what you read on a Kindle is not. It’s licensed. And it may not even be the same as the original work if the copyist has decided it’s not quite politically correct. (Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are only the more famous examples) But, alas, there is also the fact that paper is a wondrous thing, as is typography, and fine binding.

And you might think, with the fungibility of fact in our age, that the loss of history and philosophy would be bad enough. But no, there’s worse. There is the loss of fiction. And of poetry. And with them, myth.

J.R.R. Tolkien vocally regretted the lack of myth in England. Imagine what the great man might have had to work with if Henry VIII had not destroyed the library at Glasney, and those centuries of accumulated Celtic and Cornish literature had been preserved.

Because we are not yet gods, we must work the material we have to our needs. Fiction is the story of our lives retold, made from and taken out of the cacophony of incident and accident so that we might comprehend. The pet psychology of the moment may tell you what it means, one size fits all, but you will never know for yourself if you don’t look and see. A novel does that, as does poetry.

Our culture is what we are, not our possessions, but what we know. If that is reduced to what a computer can guess, there is no need for us.

So, it begins again with us, and what we do. As it always does. If we save our culture, for ourselves and our posterity, we might save our own posteriors as well. 

Books are the caches of our culture. We must, each of us, save our books because the institutions will not do it for us. With few exceptions—glorious exceptions—their mission is for themselves, not you or I. We must save our own culture before we save anyone else’s. And the culture we save must be our own, not what we are told is important, but what is important to us, individually. This is a key to overcoming the homogenization and pasteurization of what we are. The algorithmic judgment of some piece of artificial intelligence is meaningless. Worse, it is inhuman. It takes no account of the empathy and emotional ties that bind.

It is, in the end, our ties that matter. Looking at the spine of a well-loved book on a shelf is nearly as fine as looking at a friend.

About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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