Sentient Readings

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I started hearing voices a few weeks after I bought an e-reader. No, it wasn’t Stephen King or J.K. Rowling reading their latest books aloud; it was something much more frightening – the books on my library shelf started to talk to one another.

Hemingway said to Whitman, “It looks like we’re done for, Walt. They’ll bury us in a trash heap.”

“Don’t talk like that,” said James Joyce. “There’s more life in the words of the dead than in all the screens of the world. They may forget about us for a time, but they’ll always come back to the solidity of paper and ink.”

At first I thought I was imagining things, or that someone was playing a practical joke on me. But when I started to gather together boxes of old books to take to the library book sale, the voices got louder.

“You’re making a terrible mistake!” William Faulkner called out to me.

“Listen,” I said, “you’ve been gathering dust on this shelf since I left college. None of my kids have any interest in reading you, and if they ever do, I’m sure they’ll get an e-version, or CliffsNotes, or watch one of your screenplays on Netflix. They just don’t read books anymore. They don’t have the time, or the interest, and even if they did, it wouldn’t be to stick their nose in a musty smelling old tome like yours. You were old even when I bought you at that defunct used bookstore on the West Side.”

“Good literature never goes out of style.”

“Yes, but it’s not like you’ll disappear. You’ll still exist, in the cloud. If anyone wants, they can always read a quote, or a paragraph, or a synopsis of your story. And there’ll still be plenty of English teachers who’ll assign students to read the entire thing, though it’s unlikely any will. But you’ll still be available on iPads and Kindles, along with other apps and games and emails and video sites. You’ve just become a smaller part of the universe of information. But certainly just as important as Groupon, or Pinterest, although probably not on par with Facebook. Maybe you can get some extra publicity by starting a Facebook group. That’s how we’ll keep you alive. A Faulkner fan page!”

“Don’t you see, books are important in and of themselves. Books allow anyone, anywhere to access all ideas, emotions, plans, and intelligence, heroes and villains, good and evil, the entire world of any author from any time in history. A man can hold a book in his hand wherever he is, contemplate and absorb it, underline what’s important or write notes in its margins. You don’t need an Internet connection, or cell phone tower, or calling plan, or cable bill. You don’t need a battery to recharge. Each book is self-contained with its own tale to tell and allows the reader to drift away from all the concerns of the world, all the ways we get tied down and distracted, and to just concentrate, at their leisure, on its substance.”

“You’re not making much sense, Faulkner. Books have become obsolete. They just take up space in people’s houses that could be much better utilized by exercise machines, or wet bars, or bigger flat screen TVs with surround sound. Books are full of pathogens, dust mites, mold, and mildew. Every time you move, they’re a huge hassle. I wonder how many people’s backs have been thrown out moving crates of books from one apartment to the next. Your profession has probably been responsible for more chiropractic treatments than any other, except for piano makers.”

“He doesn’t understand,” said Hemingway. “Once the books are gone, it would only take a big power outage, or magnetic storm to wipe out all the great literature of the world. I didn’t write my words to be stuck on an ephemeral screen! They were meant to hold in your hand, the whole thing, the essence and the totality. You can’t compare one book to another on a tablet. You need to have them both with you, side by side, on a nice oak table, in a well-lit library, or cafe. A man reading a tablet is not a serious man; he’s a doodler, a browser, a half-wit easily distracted by incoming beeps and alarms, by the window that’s got texts, or the other that’s got porn. The tablet is a whore house. The book is a temple. You can’t worship in a whore house. You can’t find God there either, but I suppose you might find the Devil, which in its own way might be just as important. Maybe that’s what it’ll take for humanity to understand what it had and lost.”

“Look, if you think all these soliloquies are going to influence me to keep you guys around for another 30 years, you don’t know me very well. I’m downsizing. I’m simplifying. And I’m trying to do the best I can for you. I’ve offered you to the one used book dealer who’s left in town, but he only wants first editions or signed copies. That’s the only thing that’s worth trying to resell on eBay anymore. At least the library will try to keep you in circulation. But for most of you, even for a quarter, it’s unlikely anyone else will ever take you home.”

“I’ve heard what happens at the library book sales nowadays.” said Joyce. “People who are hoarders buy bagfuls of us to stick in their attics. No one will ever read us up there. Or people who want a retro look in their houses, and have a lot of bookshelves to fill up in their old fashioned libraries buy us to match the decor. We might as well be wallpaper.”

“At least if we still exist, some acolyte of the future might be able to rediscover us,” said Whitman.

“But that’s not what will happen to most of us. If nobody buys us, the library takes us to the recycling center. We get ground up and turned into napkins, paper towels, or toilet paper.”

“As far as I’m concerned, dos Passos, you’ve always been toilet paper,” said Steinbeck.

“Ah, what the hell, man. Good books will never die. We never did this to become famous.”

“Speak for yourself, Joyce,” said Mailer.

“He who doesn’t remember history is destined to repeat it,” said Santayana.

“Don’t worry, I’ll still remember you. And what I can’t remember I can always Google, or look up on Wikipedia.”

“It’s not the same! Mark my words, you will rue this day!” said Moore.

“I’m sorry, guys, but your time has come. Good luck at the annual book sale, but I just can’t have you around anymore. You make too much noise.”

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