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Of bats, books and Borders. July 20, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Darn it, I really wanted to write a post today about how wind turbines are killing bats (and birds)—an estimated 10,000 bats a year in Pennsylvania alone, according to the lead story in today’s local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call. There’s an anti-solar tirade in the same issue. Both cite the too-high cost of alternative, so-called “green” energy.

Our friend Ben will get to all this tomorrow, I promise. And since there are no easy answers, I’ll open up the floor to reader comments. (Well, as you’ll see, actually there is an easy answer; it’s just not one anybody is willing to even contemplate.)

But for now, as a writer and editor, I feel compelled to tackle the issue of the dissolution of Borders and the future of books. So here goes:

The news of Borders’ demise has been dominating headlines and shaking up the already-shaky publishing world. It has caused many pundits to predict that the use of e-readers will rise on Borders’ fall. Our friend Ben has seen much commentary from folks who say they’ll never buy another actual book, since e-books are so much more convenient. And commentary from folks insisting that there’s nothing like a real book and nobody will ever catch them reading a virtual one. And commentary from folks who recommend their local library as a way around the whole issue. And commentary from folks lamenting the imminent demise of public libraries, which they say are bound to go the way of Borders in a couple of years. 

The one thing pretty much everybody agrees on is that the death of Borders won’t bring back the independent, local, totally individual mom-and-pop bookstores that Borders and the other big-box bookstores (you know who you are) drove out of business with an efficiency and speed that puts Wal*Mart to shame. Fans of paperback bestsellers are speaking out in favor of discount chains like Costco (and Wal*Mart), not to mention groceries and pharmacies. Real booklovers—at least, those who love actual, physical books—seem to be hoping that maybe used-book stores can provide a refuge and last resort.

Our friend Ben hates to say “I told you so.” But being a history buff as well as a booklover, I’m only too aware that, for almost all of human history, books were a prized possession of a tiny elite. One had, first of all, to be able to read as a prerequisite, not exactly a widespread phenomenon until the past few centuries. One also had to be interested in reading books, as opposed to more mundane but relevant letters, accounting sheets, and the like. And one had to be able to afford the handwritten and sometimes lavishly illuminated manuscripts that were produced in minuscule and very heavily censored format in the monastic confines where the last vestiges of literacy survived and were perpetuated. Even the nobility who could afford the illuminated Books of Hours and the like often couldn’t read them, relying instead on clerks loaned out from monasteries to read out correspondence and reply to it, barely able to write their own names and affix their seals. Who really needed to know all that stuff, after all?

The invention of the printing press certainly changed all that, but the ability to read remained in the hands of those who could afford to be educated. That remained a tiny percentage of the population until widespread education became the norm in the nineteenth century. In Colonial America, most people owned exactly two books: the Bible, and a copy of our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin’s, Poor Richard’s Almanack. 

By the Regency period, and certainly the Victorian era, the world had changed. The middle as well as the upper classes could read. Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Charles Dickens, Fenimore Cooper, Trollope, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville, and the like reigned supreme. Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Charles Darwin could change the world because everyone was hanging on their every word. Not since Shakespeare had writers been able to influence public thought so quickly and to such a pervasive degree.

Then came the era of public education, when pretty much everybody was taught to read, and expected to read books. Whether those books were Nancy Drew mysteries or Ernest Hemingway novels, Julia Child cookbooks or the adventures of Winnie the Pooh or Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf, it never occurred to anyone that people would ever want to stop reading, or stop buying, books.

But by the time of Harry Potter, people had started talking about the unthinkable. Rather than praising the Harry Potter novels for their own merits, critics praised them for interesting children in reading, as though it were a dying art that J.K. Rowling had single-handedly rescued from extinction.

And what of books themselves, those objects made of paper—or paper, cloth, and cardboard, or paper and “pleather” or paper and actual leather—that people once held in their hands and read? Our friend Ben has believed all my life that their destiny was to again become the possession of the elite, the few, the passionate. I have spent a lifetime collecting books against the day when every book is an e-book and nobody gives a damn. Hawk’s Haven may be no mediaeval monastery, but our bookshelves groan under the weight of books we love and/or feel could be useful to us.

When the last book is printed, the public libraries close for lack of funding, the used-book stores run out of copies to sell, and every conceivable piece of pathetic trash is available flooding the e-book market, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood will be fully stocked with enough real books to last us a lifetime. We only hope there will be people out there who’ll be interested in inheriting our literary legacy.

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