AF­TER­LIFE OF CUL­TURE

On the screen, only the im­age—not the word—can be­come the world

Geist - - Features - Stephen Henighan

Trea­son of the Li­brar­i­ans

Be­hind ev­ery life­long reader is a li­brar­ian. In my case it was a crusty Scotswoman who was known in our vil­lage as Mrs. Bunty. Though I once vis­ited her home, where she and her hus­band sat chain-smok­ing in sag­ging arm­chairs, I never learned Mrs. Bunty’s real name. Her thick ac­cent was un­com­pro­mis­ing. She had her own ideas about what peo­ple were called. When I was nine or ten, she de­cided my name was Mark, and con­tin­ued call­ing me Mark for as long as I knew her. Af­ter hes­i­tant ef­forts to cor­rect her, I ac­cepted that in my read­ing iden­tity I was Mark. The change of name was a small price to pay to get my hands on the books she set aside for me.

Even had I not met Mrs. Bunty, I would have been a reader. The two homes I shut­tled be­tween were full of books. My child­hood among book­shelves made me fa­mil­iar with names and places; the shelves’ or­ga­ni­za­tion gave me an idea of dif­fer­ent types of knowl­edge and the tra­jec­tory of his­tory. Long be­fore I read their work, I knew that C.G. Jung was psy­chol­ogy, Will Du­rant was his­tory, D.H. Lawrence was lit­er­a­ture and Tol­stoy was Rus­sian. By brows­ing, I ab­sorbed dif­fer­ences be­tween the El­iz­a­bethans, the Vic­to­ri­ans, the Se­cond World War and the Brauti­gans and Von­neguts. Leather­bound clas­sics ver­sus con­tem­po­rary hardback nov­els; se­ri­ous Pen­guins ver­sus lighter Pans or Fon­tanas: these pair­ings limned in my un­der­stand­ing of the world. Mrs. Bunty val­i­dated the read­ing tastes of my early ado­les­cence; for chil­dren who came from homes with­out books, it was the idea of books as an en­try into life that was val­i­dated by the Mrs. Bun­tys.

A forty-two coun­try study pub­lished in 2014 con­cluded that pe­rus­ing book­shelves is one of the best learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences a child can have. Re­gard­less of in­come level, homes in which at least one hun­dred books were present pro­duced bet­ter stu­dents. Chil­dren brought up with books im­bibed a vi­sion of the con­tours of the world that gave them an ad­van­tage. In poor neigh­bour­hoods in the United States that have well-stocked li­braries, stu­dents per­form at almost the same aca­demic level as those from eco­nom­i­cally priv­i­leged homes. In spite of this ev­i­dence, univer­sity li­brar­i­ans, who serve stu­dents at the most ad­vanced level of their ed­u­ca­tion, are mount­ing an as­sault on the printed book.

In con­trast to the Mrs. Bun­tys, most univer­sity li­brar­i­ans have a Master of Li­brary and In­for­ma­tion Science de­gree. It may be that some of them were al­ways more en­am­oured of com­put­ers than books; it is cer­tain that the poli­cies they en­force (and, in most cases, en­dorse) im­pov­er­ish stu­dents’ learn­ing. When I ar­rived at the univer­sity where I now teach, the chief li­brar­ian was a man known to the fac­ulty as Ton­nage, be­cause that was how he re­ferred to books. Ton­nage or­dered the de­struc­tion of his­toric jour­nals as soon as ac­cess to digital fac­sim­i­les was ob­tained. He set a di­rec­tion that the univer­sity pur­sues un­der slo­gans such as “21st-cen­tury learn­ing.” Re­cently, I tried to read a chap­ter of a book in our cat­a­logue. But no book was in the li­brary; we had ac­cess, it tran­spired, to an ebook. When the ebook re­fused to upload onto the screen of my of­fice com­puter, six vis­its to the li­brary over two days were re­quired to ob­tain the chap­ter. All but one of the li­brar­i­ans I spoke to ef­fused about “the digital li­brary” with the glaze-eyed stares of con­verts to a cult, while shrug­ging off the fact that digital tech­nol­ogy had failed to give me ac­cess to the book. Only af­ter I com­plained loudly did they give me the chap­ter—by print­ing it off and hand­ing me a pile of loose pages.

It could be worse. I could be at a large Cana­dian univer­sity I vis­ited re­cently—let’s call it Dystopia U.—where print books are held hostage in an off-cam­pus repos­i­tory. It takes two to three days to truck in a book. The repos­i­tory is al­lowed to buy a book only if an ebook can be pur­chased si­mul­ta­ne­ously, cen­sor­ing points of view from the ma­jor­ity of the world’s coun­tries, where ebooks

photo: david iliff, 2015

are un­com­mon. Dystopia U.’s li­brary repli­cates the bare walls of homes that pro­duce dis­ad­van­taged learn­ers in a sump­tu­ous build­ing in the cen­tre of cam­pus. The univer­sity book­store was abol­ished and stu­dents now read via the digital li­brary. In 2015, Dystopia U.’s sys­tem crashed in the mid­dle of the se­mes­ter and no­body read any­thing from the li­brary for over a week. On its web­site, Dystopia U., nat­u­rally, prom­ises “21st-cen­tury learn­ing.”

Uni­ver­si­ties ed­u­cate hu­man­i­ties stu­dents by du­pli­cat­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of the for­tu­nate child: prob­ing book­shelves and ab­sorb­ing how sub­jects fit to­gether. To­day’s li­brar­i­ans en­sure that most stu­dents will never know the re­searcher’s mo­ment of epiphany of hunt­ing for a book and stum­bling on an­other, un­known book, a book that re­veals a world, shelved nearby. On­line searches, by con­trast, are com­part­men­tal­ized and ahis­tor­i­cal. The more they work on­line, the more stu­dents’ sense of his­tor­i­cal de­vel­op­ment erodes. When all texts look the same, who can sit­u­ate Lady Murasaki rel­a­tive to Lady Gaga? Words guarded be­hind a screen are re­mote. They never be­come yours; they en­cour­age skim­ming. The screen is a realm where only the im­age, not the word, can be­come the world. To hold a book in your hands is to be plunged into his­tory by an aware­ness of the book’s shape, feel, smell, prove­nance and age; it is to as­sim­i­late the cul­tural chronolo­gies of the cen­turies that pre­ceded ours. Of the univer­sity stu­dents in four coun­tries sur­veyed by Naomi Baron of Amer­i­can Univer­sity, 92% said that they con­cen­trated best when read­ing print books; most re­search in­di­cates that, out­side the univer­sity, eread­ers are rel­e­gated to lighter read­ing, of the kind that can be skimmed. Yet, rul­ing an ivory tower of their own ide­o­log­i­cal fan­tasies, Ton­nage and his ilk, sup­ported by univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors, force stu­dents to en­gage with the most de­mand­ing texts they may en­counter in their lives, at a piv­otal stage of their per­sonal de­vel­op­ment, in the eye-weary­ing, per­pet­u­ally dis­tracted, ahis­tor­i­cal, no-name glare of the screen. The re­sult is stu­dents who lack a ca­pac­ity for sus­tained con­cen­tra­tion, or a sense of chronol­ogy, and find read­ing joy­less. The pro­fes­sion that in­spired decades of self-mo­ti­vated learn­ers has be­trayed its vo­ca­tion by be­com­ing the shock troops that sep­a­rate read­ing from his­tory. Stephen Henighan’s lat­est novel is The Path of the Jaguar (This­tle­down Press, 2016). Read more of his work at geist. com and stephen­henighan.com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Stephen­henighan. Stephen Henighan lives in Guelph.

The Long Room of the Old Li­brary at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin

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