In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Wake up, it’s the twenty-first century. We can’t afford to waste
space on anything as obsolete as twenty-four volumes
of William Makepeace Thackeray,
the new librarian proclaimed in yet another message
popping up on my screen. Why bother to read
King Lear in a cumbersome book with tiny print, he asked,
when you can have all of Shakespeare, not to mention
the Bible, Koran, and Upanishads, on your hard drive?
In his capacity as dean of instructional resources
he’d been trying for weeks to e-mail me
into submission. If people like you had their say,
we’d still be chiseling words into stone.
It was the kind of sarcasm one might expect
from a forward-thinking caveman
condescending to argue with his Cro-Magnon colleagues
who are stupid enough to think fire the work of the devil.
Finally the dean had to resort to something as old-fashioned
as feet, and he tracked me down
in my office, obviously disgusted to find so many books
crammed into it, the untidiness of their pages.
Do you have such a schoolgirl crush on Keats that you must
hold him to your chest? Are you such an old maid
you must have a cup of tea with your Jane Austen?
Be a man of the times, the dean said.
That’s when I punched him in the stomach
with The Collected Verse of Edwin Arlington Robinson.
See, I said, as The Wife of Bath chased him down the hall,
as the Modern Library edition
of Clarissa bounced off his back,
books are good for something!
The Collected Letters of Millard Fillmore.
Sara Teasdale: A Life. The Guilds in 14th Century Latvia.
I like that there are volumes on the shelves that
no one has signed out for years, their pages so important
they don’t have to be read
all the time, the words still free to take up space,
to nod off for a few centuries
till they find their way into the hands of a young man
curious about the gift rituals of the Trobriand Islanders,
or a girl eager to devour an obscure French symbolist;
books so dusty everyone knows you’ve been reading them
just by looking at your hands; tomes
so heavy you can’t mistake their intentions;
old encumbrances you’ve got to work to get down off the shelf.
Sure, I am an obstructionist. But then, so are words.
Dear Subcommittee on the Gradual Devolution,
Divestment, and Disposal of Printed Material
in Favor of the Dematerialized, Decontaminated,
and Electronically Deconstructed:
Have none of you ever fallen so deeply in love
with Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina or Moll Flanders
you had to sweep her off to the bathroom
and prove your ardor page by page,
and not just with your eyes but with your hands?
Every kid who beats off with a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover
proves that one reads with more than one’s retinas.
Do you realize that you are ruining the sex education
of fifteen-year-olds? Once upon a time
a kid could indulge any kind of perversion if he looked
long and hard enough in the stacks,
but now it’s not the librarian peering
over his shoulder but the U.S. Attorney General
keeping track of everyone’s alleged erections.
Thanks to information technology,
the Justice Department can maintain a record of every time
a boy in Duluth cops a virtual feel.
A kid used to be able to hide his porn beneath his mattress.
You try to fit a computer under there.
If books are passé, what about writing with wood
and graphite designed to break
and wear down to a nub? Thanks to my first-grade teacher,
even before I could write a sentence, I was worried
about lead poisoning, what words could do
if they got under your skin. But that made writing
even more exciting. I’d already fallen in love with
the way my thumb and its small platoon of fingers
held the pencil up like a flag they were attempting to plant
on a hill they’d just taken. I could feel the words
forming, their letters growing softer
as the point wore down, it being only natural
that they give under so much weight.
In college I refused to give up writing
with graphite. I imagined the syllables crouching
inside the pencil like actors waiting for their cues.
I didn’t wash the smudges off my hands till I had to.
That’d be like scrubbing away Keats or Virgil.
Nothing smelled more inviting than pine
cut away from pine, the shavings at the last moment curling
as if they couldn’t help this little show of joy
at being liberated. Old Number 2, comrade in arms,
you’ve seen me more naked than my wife has.
I’ve told you more than I’d ever say to a therapist.
How many times have you saved my life,
my thumb and first two fingers latching onto you
like shipwrecked sailors, the rest of the hand pressing close,
my whole body holding on as we ride out the tempest?
My second-grade teacher wouldn’t let us use erasers.
She wanted us to get things right the first time.
But that’s why I love pencils:
everything you do with them, you can undo
immediately. If there’s pleasure
in putting something down on paper,
there’s even more in rubbing it off the page.
If in the fall the trees get to let go of a whole year
of hard thinking, why can’t we erase just as much?
On a computer, delete something and it’s gone for good,
but with a pencil you still have the grit of your words,
an entire alphabet of erasures. Pencils have
outlived their use? Erasers outstayed their welcome?
You might as well claim that leaves are outmoded.
There’s something to be said for getting as close to words
as you can, the hand guarding
what it just gave birth to, even bearing down
on a writing instrument till it breaks
and then having to bring a point back
again and again to the pencil, that familiar intimacy
between graphite and finger, flesh
and word, hunched over a sentence in a dimming light,
eyes trying to figure out what the hand just wrote.
Chris Bursk’s poem “In with the New, Out with the Old” [July 2008] gives me hope that I am not the only bibliophile left on the planet. I am having floor-to-ceiling bookcases installed in my home, despite having been told by realtors that it might reduce the value of the property because “buyers will be intimidated by all that bookshelf space.” I cannot imagine ceding the physical presence of books to technology. I love seeing them there, stalwart on their shelves, waiting to be picked up and read again or for the first time. The feel and smell of them are intoxicating, especially the old ones — some of which my great-great-grandfather held and read.
At first read I thought I would e-mail this letter, but I decided it needed to be written out with a pencil — a Papermate #2. No erasures, just cross-outs and arrows. I had forgotten how good it feels to write this way.
Chris Bursk’s “In with the New, Out with the Old” reminded me of a conversation that took place thirty-four years ago between my mother and my then-ten-year-old son. My son, in awe of new technology, said that someday collections of books on microfiche would replace traditional libraries.
“Never,” his grandmother replied. “People will always want the feel of a book in their hands.”
More than three decades later microfiche is obsolete. My son, who went on to major in computer science, has his own small publishing company, producing hold-them-in-your-hand-and-turn-the-pages books. He is banking on his grandmother’s prediction that they will never be obsolete.