Paul Greenberg

"Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn 'em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That's our official slogan."

--Ray Bradbury, "Fahrenheit 451"

"When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books."

--James Tracy, headmaster, Cushing Academy

Without a Gibbon to record the decline and fall of a civilization in proper detail and literary fashion, a few scattered notes on the continuing collapse may have to do. Perhaps these will be of use to some future archaeologist digging through the electronic junkyard that will prove our civilization's equivalent of Roman ruins. Buried somewhere in the vast pile of old Fax machines, laptops and iPhones, this little news item may help explain how we came a-cropper:

In Ashburnham, Mass., in once proud New England, land of the Pilgrims and Puritans, of iron-hard Adamses and dreamy Emersons, a prep school has just given up on books. The headmaster of Cushing Academy, one James Tracy, doesn't see any need for them. Not any more. Anybody who's anybody or wants to be now has an iPhone with apps, a Kindle or whatever the Next Big Thing turns out to transiently be. Who needs books?

To quote this very model of the modern headmaster: "When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books."

There you have another sign of the shiny, color-coded cultural Apocalypse, one of the many such signs all around if we weren't too busy googling to notice them. The barbarians are not just at the gates but deep within the citadel -- at the head of the very schools entrusted with passing on the heritage of the past. How the mighty have fallen.

There are still those of us who see something other than an outdated technology when we look at books -- like a great store of value, the very currency of knowledge, of wisdom and of whatever of virtue may be taught by the written word.

"There are only a few of us left," as an old lawyer out of Mississippi named Billy Moore Clark, pronounced Billy Mo' Cla'k in these latitudes, used to confide when in his cups and sighing for the days of a lost grace.

We happy few can only respond to Headmaster Tracy's view with a slow, sad shake of the head. For what other response would be more fitting when confronted by someone so blind to the use and beauty of books, so immune to their charm, so impervious to the spell they cast, so cut off from the delight of not just reading but experiencing a great book?

The headmaster would prefer to be stared down by some electronic simulacrum that wearies the eyes, mind and patience. Sad doesn't begin to describe his handicap. Which he seems determined to pass on to his poor students.

The headmaster's low opinion of books may be only the first wave of a bleak future. How long before booklovers will have to gather secretly in whatever passes for catacombs nowadays to pore over their favorite volumes, savor the scent of printer's ink on freshly printed pages, know the assurance of sturdy bindings and sense the promise a real book holds for each successive reader?

How long before the world is divided between book people and those who, like the contemptuous headmaster, dismiss books as holdovers from an earlier, primitive time? Now we have a new god: Deus ex Machina. How long before, as in Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," those who still treasure books will be treated as suspect, outcasts, rejects?

The headmaster is nothing if not sincere, more's the pity. For his comments are matched by actions that would credit a vandal: He's getting rid of his academy's library of some 20,000 volumes, which are to be replaced by a $500,000 "learning center" full of flat-screen telemonitors, laptop-friendly carrels, and various other electronic gotta-haves that will soon enough be outdated in technology's rush to obsolescence.

It was not enough for Headmaster Tracy to dismiss the book with a heedless comment; he had to insult the scroll, too: "When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books." Hard as it is to believe in this oh-so-advanced age, there is still an obscure religious sect that gathers on each of its sabbaths to read from such a scroll. The prophet of another faith even referred to its adherents as the People of the Book.

The scroll they read is handwritten with fear and reverence, blessings and recitations, each word recorded on parchment by a learned scribe who has spent years in preparation for his task. Written in an ancient tongue called Hebrew, the scroll is said to open a whole universe of thought and revelation. To those who hold fast to it, they say, it is a tree of life. Its teachings, they claim, are inexhaustible. But the headmaster would seem to have even less use for scrolls than he does books. Man's ignorance, and his pride in it, appears to be inexhaustible, too.

I learned of this latest attack in the ongoing war on books via my favorite little magazine, The New Criterion, whose department of Notes and Comments regularly reports on these brittle post-cultural times. It watches for such inauspicious signs with the sharp eye of a lookout on the bridge of the Titanic. I tend to save my copies, lest I miss a single report on the continuing collapse of Western civilization. So I can remember what it was.






The War on the Book | Global Viewpoint