The Pains of a Paradigm Shift
Empty Bookshelves - Seattle Central Library (partial) found here on Flickr.com - photographer unknown
Greenberg’s article also illustrates some extremely reveling concerns felt by opponents of the digitization of books. He writes in highly charged and often hyperbolic language of his fears for a future without his beloved tomes. To begin he quotes, Fahrenheit 451; “Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, Burn ‘em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.” Later in the article he references Bradbury’s classic again asking, “How long before… those who still treasure books will be treated as suspect, outcasts, rejects?” He paints an Orwellian picture of bibliophiles meeting secretly in fear of a contemptuous society that would despise them for their love of books.
While this portion of Greenberg’s article is useful as an example of the ire and sensitivity this subject inspires in many people, the logic that underpins many of Greenberg’s arguments becomes unwieldy under close inspection. For example, the very allusion to Fahrenheit 451 seems more polemical then functional. While it does paint a vivid picture of a dystopian world without books, the comparison to Cushing’s plans and Bradbury’s book does not really work.
The destruction of books in Bradbury’s novel was never ultimately about the medium itself but the messages contained between the pages. The firemen were not burning books for their dislike of the printed form, they were destroying the stories and ideas contained therein because what books could be used for were dangerous. It wasn’t as if Beatty and Montag were burning people’s books and then handing them e-readers wherein they could access the titles in the digitized format—it was the ideas they were interested in eradicating.
Comparably, Tracy is not advocating the destruction of books—he’s simply advocating a new medium in which to engage with all available literature and other resources. Stephen King wrote in his column in Entertainment Weekly that when reading a book on the Kindle, although strange at first, “It became about the message instead of the medium, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” (“Books With Batteries—Why Not?”, 23 January 2008)
To love books – the way the paper smells in a new hardcover, the beat-me-up and take-me-anywhere feel of a dog-eared paperback—is one thing; to prefer them for their aesthetic over e-readers is obvious to many. To compare the Cushing Academy’s plans to convert its stacks to online menus to Bradbury’s depiction of fanatic censorship, however, is fallacious and it hurts the practical dialogue that should be taking place as we shift into the digital world.
One of Greenburg’s principle problems appears to be with the contemptuous way people are disavowing the sacred position of books which he sees as “the very currency of knowledge”, and is disheartened that Tracy would not want to pass that love down to his students. Any person who has read a book and lost themselves within its pages can understand that position. For many, myself included, books have been both teacher and friend, allowing one to experience countless emotions and events, secondhand, yet nonetheless real.
Yet while there is beauty to be found in curling up with a nice big book on a rainy day, neither that aesthetic value, nor the personal affections the medium invokes, are enough for academic institutions to base their futures on, when digital alternatives are providing more information with fewer constraints. Furthermore, it appears that Greenburg’s dismissal of the future is similar to seemingly callous disregard for the iconography of the past that Tracy is accused of, and he appears to impose his worldview just as ruthlessly as Tracy’s critics claim the headmaster is imposing his.
The fact that people like books is not reason enough for a school library to not attempt to modernize its facility. Furthermore, it is important to remember the big picture. As both a teacher and a book lover, I would rather the younger generations discover their love of reading on their own terms and not mine or Greenburg’s, because ultimately, I find more currency and import in the love of reading itself then in a love of books.
The transition between traditional and digital mediums of information exchange is not going to be an easy one, and it is certainly understandable that one recoils when hearing that a library is getting rid of its books. However, it’s important for all sides of this issue to remember that academic institutions cannot hold doggedly on to the tastes of the past if it threatens their ability to educate their students. It is not an overstatement to say that what we are witnessing is the momentum of history moving us inexorably forward. These paradigm shifts, both large and small, are a constant reality of humanity and technology.
While the traditional place of printed books is about to be altered in the coming years, a process which began slowly when the first computers were created, it’s important to face the future with an open mind. Reading taught me that. And reading will continue to teach that same message regardless of whether it is on a scroll, a printed page, or a computer screen.