The Long Room of the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin
On the screen, only the image—not the word—can become the world
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. Leather-bound 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 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.