The book of my lifetime had only a vague but passing resemblance to those made by the Dutch emigrant to England, Wynken de Worde—like a cousin whose mother might have had extracurricular interests. The paper, the ink, the typography, the binding, and the covers of the year 1500 were all unlike anything I knew. Nevertheless, those handmade and crafted volumes were true relatives to the pale and near bloodless objects I read—devoured, really—bought and sold, wrote and published myself. And, this now ancient trade of bookmaking might have been my legacy, at least in some alternate universe that I might even write about someday, but in this corporeal and existential world we occupy, my grandchildren will not know the book.
The importance of this is incalculable. Even to the smallest detail. They will not know the pause of the page, the texture even, of manufactured paper, the smell of ink and glue in the gutters, or the feel and weight of a volume in hand. They will not understand the importance of typography in giving comfort to the eye, pleasing the mind, and aiding comprehension, perception and interpretation. That much, and more, to be had before the first word is read!
But far worse, they will not appreciate the absolute nature of the written word, and the utter commitment the author once made to meaning what was said when the word was manifest in ink on paper. The fungible nature of the virtual object they will know of in their lives as a ‘book’ has no relationship to the original. The Orwellian use of ancient terms to give gravitas to that new-made ephemeral existence is contemptible—and they will soon have contempt for it. Everything written in the new media will be as much a lie as what is spoken—the difference being little more that means.
In their post-ironic age, when the mettle of any author is only a measure of his success, the cynicism will overwhelm them, sicken them, and leave them weakened. The sustenance of the mind is words. Without them they cannot think. If the words have lost their meanings, their understanding of what they must face will be vague. Having been taught to sight-read, words are only symbols now. The interior meanings are lost. ‘Hate-speech’ becomes a compound noun or verb of equal value and with no true origin to the meaning, but must be the result of hate-thought. The speaker must be condemned—people must be condemned for what they say! Free speech becomes an oxymoron. And the Press . . . . You can’t be publishing words that might offend. Not in this virtual world of zeros and ones.
Books of that sort will offer little comfort for the worlds to come.
Yet Wynken de Worde faced a similar problem. This was long before the Scottish Enlightenment and a useful concept of freedom of the press. He had to get permission to print and then approval for what he printed. But words have meanings and the reading public grew and demanded more. Understanding grew. Translated from the original Greek and Hebrew, William Tyndale’s publication of the Bible in English made every man his own pastor. In 1536, the Church had him strangled for his effort.
When our demeaned forefathers pledged “to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” there was a good chance they would be hung.
True, today they are killing for memes. The staff of Charlie Hebdo would know about that. I suppose not much has changed after all. It’s just that memes have meaning now.
Books have always been my friends. I live with them all about me, overwhelming the furniture, mostly in their order of use. The mere sight of a title can egg me on, seduce me, incite me, deflate me, provoke me. I will avoid looking to a particular shelf if my mood is wrong. I don’t want to face the condemnation I know is there. Or, I might pull several volumes from a shelf at once for moral support. I have happily moved those small bodies from place to place as I have moved myself, and mourned their loss when they cannot be found. With some, I have so lost track of the readings that they bristle with the note cards caught in the pages and terrify me—what have I forgotten? But then a card filled with the scribble of some past reading and found unexpectedly can spark a whole new round of thought—or a story, or a new book to be written. Several books, in fact.
In this age of television—for that is what it truly is—the new hieroglyph is the meme. Words have lost meaning and the meme—that compound fracturing of thought to an easily grasped image that won’t confuse—has gained in the place of the single words themselves. Memes are easier to scan. Actual ‘reading’ is no longer necessary. It is not incidental that the cartoon has made a comeback with the meme. And the kissing cousin of the cartoon, the computer generated image, is right there to offer the illusion of substance. No need to imagine. They’ll do it for you.
My grandchildren will think in such memes. They will be impatient with me for wanting them to express themselves in actual words. Books—real books—are too slow. The video will tell them all they need to know.
My grandchildren will be bright and strong, I understand. Because I want it to be so. But I will make them unhappy by pressing books into their hands to read, and then talking about them for hours, interrupting their shows. But in truth, my influence will be small and the onslaught of sound-bite media will easily drown my smaller voice. I cannot overrule the wishes of their parents and, as I have already lost much ground with them, there is little hope of that. For them, the book is an artifact. As in truth, I am too.
My grandfather was illiterate. He relied on memes of a different sort. The look of the creek water could tell him if it was good to fish. The husk of an ear of corn informed him if it was fresh or ripe, no need to strip it down. The sound of an engine told him when it was in need of repair. The look of the sky accurately informed him of the weather for tomorrow and for days to come. He judged men by their actions. Words were playful to him. He told stories that went on and on and filled an evening—the way life goes on and on. Those stories had meanings to be found in the actions of the people involved.
In one sense of time, I have travelled from the physical history of Wynken de Worde, when the printed word first manifested itself to an illiterate public and created our modern world, to the virtual post-modern existence of Homer Simpson. Five hundred years. My own history is the history of the book. Begun and done.