Today marks the anniversary of the deaths of Cervantes, Shakespeare and Garcilaso de la Vega and the birthdays of Vladimir Nabokov, Maurice Druon, and Josep Pla. This date, as chosen by the UN, celebrates the book and all it has wrought and, perhaps more important, the place of the book as artifact and sextant in our lives.
Happy World Book Day. Please nibble a madeline in honor of those timeless tombstones of information that have, for centuries, been our guiding stars through the darkness of ignorance.
All is not well for the book. As I’ve written before, I think the printed word will soon enter the domain of enthusiasts and, in the case of educational materials, the catastrophically underfunded. I can see a day when bookstores are few and far between and act more like vinyl record shops than fonts of information. To be clear, that’s not the case yet but it will be shortly.
The age of book as newsmaker is also fading. With so much content to wade through daily, the average reader has the time to read a few novels a year or a non-fiction book a quarter. Talking about books at work has been replaced with talking about TMZ and the endless news cycle ensures dinner conversation is less about Michael Pollan and more about Michael Phelps.
As a writer I have to hope that long form survives this upheaval. Unfortunately, the dedicated book delivery system – namely the book – is fast fading and we have yet to find a perfect replacement. I have found that the only way I can read books these days is on a dedicated e-reader. Cracking them open on an iPad, for example, encourages a sort of half-attention as dozens of other news sources vie for attention through notifications or just through a nagging sensation of FOMO. The happiest I’ve been in a long while was a week’s vacation where all I had was an e-ink Kindle, a series of ever stronger tequila sunrises, and a beach chair. I roasted myself in the tropical sun while doing the sort of reading – long, dedicated, focused – I had not done since I was a teenager devouring Stephen King novels after school. This is the magic of reading: it is not air but it is as important as breathing. It is not food but you hunger for it when it is gone.
The UN wants World Book Day to celebrate the pleasure of reading. I would wager they would do better to encourage the pleasure of understanding. Reading we do all day, every day. We consume relentlessly, throwing away the things we read instantly and forgetting them even faster. The men and women the UN celebrates, the authors of old and the authors of late that once were boldface names back when newspapers printed boldface names, give us a view on the world that is unique and allows us to begin to understand the world around us. Books are messages through time. Those messages become more and more occluded and it is our job, as readers and as lovers of the word, to blow away the dust and teach our kids the value of a good book.
There’s a lot of talk about censorship these days – which books are banned, which books are burned – but I worry more about apathy. Without a reading culture, without men and women and children who love the idea of a good book, be it in real ink or e-ink, we do the censors job for them. I disagree that the book, as a physical object, is important. I would defend to the death the importance of the book to world.
Bill Hicks, that poet of our modern age, once said:
“I was in Nashville, Tennessee last year. After the show I went to a Waffle House. I’m not proud of it, I was hungry. And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me: ‘Hey, whatcha readin’ for?’ Isn’t that the weirdest fuckin’ question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading FOR? Well, godammit, ya stumped me! Why do I read? Well . . . hmmm . . . I dunno . . . I guess I read for a lot of reasons and the main one is so I don’t end up being a f***n’ waffle waitress.”
While there are some smart waffle waitresses, I’d wager a young woman or man, given books and time and a well-lit room, would enter the world with far more enlightenment than anything even Hicks could imagine. We need books. Please, if you have the time and the means, give a book to someone today. Happy World Book Day.