The late John Lukacs, who died in 2019, leaving behind a busload of wonderful books, once described himself as “a crumbling remnant. A remnant of the very end of the Bourgeois Age and a remnant of the Age of Books.”
Remnants are hard to come by these days, crumbling or otherwise. Especially the literary kind. I mean, who wants to write books that no one reads? Books that, even on a good day, are given the shelf life of yogurt? And the reason they are not read is not because they are unreadable, although many of them doubtless are, but because nobody reads anything anymore. Period. Why should they? In a world awash in electronic media, who has time to turn the pages of a book?
Actually, we do have time, heaps and heaps of time, only it all seems to have been co-opted by the internet, our obsession with which having digitalized us all. Immersed from a very early age in sensations of shock and awe—the sheer relentless bombardment from radio and TV, not to mention fleeting images exploding across the movie screen—what becomes of an attention span no longer shaped by the slow, leisurely pace of a book?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In a provocative piece written in 1996 called “A Neo-Luddite Reflects on the Internet,” author and historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who also died in 2019, announced her misgivings regarding this development, seeing in it the latest and most powerful expression of the postmodern mind. In fact, she accused the internet of being “the postmodernist technology par excellence. It is as subversive of ‘linear,’ ‘logocentric,’ ‘essentialist’ thinking, as committed to ‘aporia,’ ‘indeterminacy,’ ‘fluidity,’ ‘intertextuality,’ and ‘contextuality’ of discourse, as deconstruction itself.”
At the heart of postmodernism, in other words, is the refusal to distinguish among the good and the bad, the true and the false, the beautiful and the ugly. Thus, a great leveling takes place, rendering everything flat as a map. It is not that truth is made to stand on its head; it is that truth has lost its head and has since been kicked into the nearest ditch. And the internet, of course, has become the perfect vehicle for showing us how it is done, becoming the weapon of choice, as it were, in the ongoing war against the word. She writes:
The search for a name or phrase or subject will produce a comic strip or advertising slogan as readily as a quotation from the Bible or Shakespeare. Every source appearing on the screen has the same weight and credibility as every other; no authority is ‘privileged’ over any other.
The world of yesteryear is no more. It has become, as the title of a largely forgotten book written more than fifty years ago by Peter Laslett put it, The World We Have Lost. Can we get it back? Not if we have lost our literacy, we can’t. Not if we’ve lost not just the hunger or zest for books, but the capacity even to read them. When that goes, we shall all lapse into a pre-literate state, where even the alphabet need not exist, words and meanings having evanesced entirely. Who needs to write anything down when the very medium of print has vanished like the snows of yesteryear?
If you’re looking for a snapshot of such a world, pick up a work of dystopian fiction, particularly the two landmark examples from the last century by Huxley and Orwell. There you will see a human landscape wiped completely clean of books; shorn of love and freedom as well. It is a world where Orwell especially feared totalitarians bent on banning all books, punishing those who dared possess one.
Meanwhile, Huxley feared that there would be no need to ban anything since everyone would be too strung out on soma, the so-called drug of choice for denizens of Brave New World, to take notice. “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information,” writes Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. “Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.”
I’m betting on Huxley having the last word, only don’t wait too long lest the word itself disappear down the memory hole.
“People say that life is the thing,” wrote Logan Pearsall Smith, “but I prefer reading.” When a student once told me that he’d never picked up a book in his life, not even the few I’d assigned, I felt a great sense of pity for all the pleasures he’d deprived himself of, not realizing that he’d felt no sense of loss whatsoever—excepting for the grade he got as a result of so many unread assignments.
There is a great divide in this country, one which has gone largely unnoticed, between those who read and those who won’t. Those who, like Proust but perhaps a tad less flamboyantly, regard books as “the noblest of distractions,” and those who would far sooner lose themselves in Facebook than sit down and read one. How it would have baffled poor Michel de Montaigne, much of whose life was spent in a tower surrounded by them. “All I seek from books,” he tells us, “is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.”
Not a bad way to spend one’s free time.
And then, of course, there is his splendid disciple, the inimitable Joseph Epstein, who, at age 85, is still turning out books whose elegance and wit remind one more than anyone else writing today of his master, Monsieur Montaigne. “I read for the pleasures of style,” he confesses, “and in the hope of laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness, and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.”
What more could one ask of a book? And, so, in the singsong words of the child whose voice the future St. Augustine unmistakably heard: “Take it and read, take it and read.”
[Photo Credit: Unsplash]