By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. This is an article about books and the people who love them…. people who are seeing what they love so much undergoing the most profound changes, challenges right before their eyes. Books, in all their glories, were we were sure as much a verity for us as for our grandparents. The only thing that could take them away from us was the kind of thought control dictatorship so convincingly drawn in “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury (1953).
But now, for us, it is not some menacing autocracy that threatens books… it is the very Internet you are using now. And so I went in search of a perfect sound for this article and while I was looking I remembered the superb musical theme when “Anne of Green Gables” and “Anne of Avonlea” made a most memorable television event. The touch- your-heart music was composed by Hugh Hagood Hardy, and you can find it in any search engine. Go find it now… and allow the music to create the perfect background for this article.
Anne was (as all bibliophiles, and some others, know) a reader of books, a collector of books, a writer of books. And now her theme garlands an article about the dwindling future of books. Anne would be distressed by this development and would wax eloquent, that “Something must be done.” Thus she would stand ready to mobilize her fellow kindred-spirits, but to what end, for what purpose: because we should do it, she’d say, because it is the right thing to do, because to go down fighting for a thing so important is just what bibliophiles should be doing.
From as early as I can remember…
I am the kind of person books were invented for. I love everything about them and always have. I love them in paper backs which can be spilled on and written in with impunity. I love them with tooled leather covers with seigneurial coats of arms and the mottos of kings and noble princes. I love textbooks… I love olde books… I love new books (but the pas goes to the olde).. I love the way they smell… I love the ways they pile up… and, so high, then fall down to litter the floor.
I love them when I can easily find them… and when, determined, I cannot.
I love the kinds of paper they’re printed on… I love the names of the companies which have published them… and most of all I not only love but venerate all the authors who have written them and, in their way, advanced and preserved knowledge (and ignorance) for future generations as yet unimagined.
As such whatever threatens books, threatens me, the life and pleasures I have known and wished to know forever, the purposes they were written for, and the utmost feeling of total satisfaction one gets on an early day in springtime sitting under a newly budded tree lost in a world conveyed between two covers and opening just for you.
When I was a boy in 1950s Illinois, mine was a house of books. All the denizens of 4906 Woodward Avenue (requisite two parents and three offspring) were book readers, book collectors, and (to a person) scribblers of profound thoughts and declarations running wildly in the margins. I know to this day, 60 years on, just what books they were; my mother fancied Carl Sandberg and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. My father liked Edgar Cayce, Napoleon Hill, and the Good Book. And the children had boxes full of books, each a “favorite” for a time, only to be replaced by the next, but never forgotten or (don’t even ask) loaned to anyone.
Our village was so small we did not have a good book store. That was a discovery yet to come. For us the annual school book fare took its place. Every year the teachers of the elementary school would arrange for a huge array of books to be shown and sold for the benefit of the school. We ended up “needing” a vast number of these books and had the wheedling of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles et al down to a science any publisher would have envied. So important the event, I could tell you precisely how the display tables were set up and who came amidst the throng of eager readers. I always walked away with a grand selection of the newest Landmark titles, principally on American history. I read them so often and thoroughly I can quote them today.
“King Arthur and His Knights”.
My favorite book growing up was based on Sir Thomas Mallory’s celebrated tale. Every page spoke to me… and the mere fact one had one hundred times thoroughly and carefully read it did not mean one would forego a hundred and first reading, just in case some small detail had been, no disrespect intended, overlooked. Like my Landmark books I memorized pages and pages… and made a positive fetish of ensuring I knew the name of every noble knight, his pedigree, and the complete details of each of his adventures. Bibliophiles are like that.
It was this book that produced the first great book trouble. My mother, for all that she loved books, thought her eldest child should spend less time inside “nose in a book” in the dismissive parlance of the day and more outside in God’s green acre doing the usual things prairie children did. Thus, on one never-to-be-forgotten day she came to my room, saw me and Sir Thomas Mallory tete-a-tete again and raised a broom, urging me with the utmost clarity and vehemence to go outside… and now! As she pushed me out the door and locked it, she screamed, “Now play!”
She might have known bibliophiles, especially those destined to write as many books and articles as I have, would have had a superb memory. I told this tale at the Parker House in Boston, when my suave and gentlemanly publisher Louis Strick, gave a party in honor of the publication of my first book, “Insubstantial Pageant: Ceremony and Confusion at Queen Victoria’s Court”. She wasn’t pleased but she had to admit the story was true, not ben trovato.
The Childcraft books.
My grandmother was not a great reader, unless you except her unmatched collection of recipes; under other circumstances she might have massaged them into a book. But for all that she was not a great reader… she understood that one of the myriad roles grandmothers play is to foster a love of books. Here she gets full marks, particularly for giving me a complete set of Childcraft books.
In the volume dealing with Boston there was an evocative line drawing, not a photograph, of Beacon Hill. There was that in the picture that made me want to live, not just in a similar place, but in that place. When I was a student at Harvard years later, I set out to find that street and, in due course, resided on it… where in a room with Ivy covered bow window, I joined the company of authors… so proud, so honored, so determined to keep writing and so remain in the best possible standing amidst so many such.
The end of Border’s Books.
All these reflections came to mind the other day when I read in my fast shrinking newspaper The Boston Globe (also being undone by the ‘net) that once proud Borders Books, once a significant chain which often carried my books, was now bankrupt, going out of business, another e-casualty. Life is constant change, old truths and venerable institutions tumble, their places taken by the “cutting edge” which will in due course be demode’ as well. I know all this. But there will be a void in the world now dawning where there are fewer books every day and fewer to rue their passing. But I shall always be one of them. I hope you will, too.