Why Books Matter

Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash

One of my favorite novels — and one I have taught to my college students — is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. It’s a book about . . . the future of books.

In the novel, Montag, the protagonist, confiscates a Bible, one of the last books in existence. His wife, meanwhile, keeps herself occupied by watching reality TV on wall-sized screens all day long, taking pills to relax and putting earbuds in her ears at night to be soothed by music.

It appears that Bradbury saw the future very clearly when he wrote his book in the 1950s.

At one point, the wife asks Montag, “What’s more important to you? Me or that book?” It’s quite a question, and Montag doesn’t have to think twice about the answer.

Here’s another science fiction scenario, and this comes from real life.

Back in 2002, Google came up with the idea of scanning and digitalizing everything that had ever been printed, eventually creating an online library that would be nearly limitless in its scope and accessible to all.

On the surface, many academics praised the effort and it would represent the greatest democratization of knowledge since the invention of the printing press.

Although Google’s work continues nearly twenty years later, it has been beset by lawsuits and also accusations that there has been a bias in its selection of what it has chosen to digitalize thus far. (For example, women writers have been underrepresented, some claim. Who is surprised?)

Nevertheless, I think it is safe to assume that eventually everything we could possibly want to read will be available online, whether Google or other companies do the work of digitalizing.

My question is, once everything is online, who controls it? Some may recall that Amazon demonstrated back in 2009 that it had the power to wipe out books from your Kindle devices after you had already bought them. This happened with George Orwell’s 1984, of all things.

For argument’s sake, let’s stick with Google. What if Google digitalizes everything and then decides they want to charge you for every page you read? Or, more alarming, what if the government decides it wants to buy Google? Everyone has a price. “Google, we’ll give you 25 trillion dollars for the whole thing.” Guess what? Your free Internet just became controlled by the government. And if they don’t like some of the history on there, they can start revising or deleting it. And you have no way to check because you have no hard copy. Even if you want to go to the library, we’ve already seen that they have converted a lot of their content online as well. Or maybe the government shuts down the libraries.

It doesn’t matter. By then (if not now), we’ve become so numb and stupid, we won’t ask questions. We’ll just plug in our music until the government comes knocking on our doors.

These days, we are so easily distracted that it’s easier to watch a show or a YouTube video, play a game, or answer texts. I tell my students: “Watch out. If you are not thinking, someone out there will be doing the thinking for you.”

Think back to when you were a child. How did you become aware of, or excited about, books? My parents were not college-educated, but we got a newspaper every day, so I had some sense of what was going on in the world. We had the Encylopedia Britannica, so on a rainy day I could go through the pages and read about the Wright brothers or the Gettysburg Address or Bette Davis. We had Reader’s Digest, detective novels, Sports Illustrated, how-to books, PG-rated romance novels, whatever — just enough to make me curious and hungry to find better stuff.

We now have homes where there are no books visible. They call it minimalism. I don’t know about you, but if I see a phone or iPad on a coffee table, ti does not inspire me to read, even if there is a Kindle collection in there. In a country where our young people are grammatically illiterate and culturally starved, don’t we want homes where our children and nieces and nephews can browse? Seeing books encourages reading.

Another one of my favorite books is The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. His theory is that when we read online, we are skimming, not reading deeply, and that our brains — like plastic — will mold and adapt to whatever we feed them. Reading online keeps us open to distractions from pop-ups and clickbait and hyperlinks. If we are not reading deeply, we are not thinking deeply. We don’t need less critical thinking in the world right now.

Some will argue that e-books are good for the environment. Possibly. But how much plastic and oil is being used to make our gadgets, and how much energy is used to keep them all constantly charged? I know they can be refurbished and sent to developing countries, but I suspect most just toss them out and they fill our landfills for decades to come. At least books are biodegradable.

Full disclosure: As an author myself, I admit to being excited that my book is offered as an e-book as well as print. In theory, it is more revenue for us. I get 10% of the price of my print book ($2 for a twenty-dollar book), but 15% off an e-book ($1.50 for a ten-dollar book). I would still have to sell more e-books, even though the content is the same. You may have noticed that e-books are now priced about the same as a print book — less cost and more profit for the publisher. Do we want to live in a world where we bargain down authors, pay them even less? The book industry is going the way of the music industry, where musicians get paid percentages of pennies for their streams.

As someone who has taught writing to college freshmen, I can tell you that the future of books looks very bleak. But I tell you what I tell them: Books matter. They matter for our history. They matter for our intelligence. And yes, they most certainly matter for our future.

I am an author, freelance writer, and singer/songwriter. I split my time between Brooklyn, NY and my native Massachusetts. I teach at City College of New York.