The Corner

Culture

Serendipitous and Other Reading

Portraits of Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman on the home screens of Nook readers from Barnes & Noble in 2012 (Dominick Reuter / Reuters)

You may have heard that Vladimir Putin performed a constitutional maneuver, aimed at ensuring that he will be dictator-for-life. Why do they bother? Why do dictators bother with certain constitutional niceties? I lead my Impromptus today with this subject.

I also get into the Olympic Games; an Iranian defector; an American-to-be from Afghanistan; and more. Part of the “more” is a visit to Cedarville University, in Ohio. I spent the day with students, faculty, and staff — a wonderful day — and the very first question posed by a student was this: “What’s Kevin Williamson like?” I said, “Oh, baby, lemme tell you!”

Here on the Corner, I would like to publish a letter by a friend and reader in Texas. I found it interesting, unusual, and even profound. Her Subject heading is “Thoughts stumbled upon in the night.” Then she says,

Literally. I got up at 4 for the usual reason, tripped over the dog, and stumbled violently into the bedpost, yelling something I’ll have to go to confession for. My injuries are minor but painful . . .

Anyway, couldn’t go back to sleep and started thinking about electronic reading devices, which have been a godsend to me but I think for society in general could prove disastrous. I thought about growing up in a household with books, magazines, and newspapers strewn about from room to room. Nothing highbrow — just Time, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, the Bible, a few art and poetry books. The material was different in my other relatives’ homes and sometimes I got a different point of view from what my parents were reading, but in any case I was compulsive reader from age seven or so. Like most kids in those “unprogrammed” days, I had a lot of time to kill, and would pick something up and read it and learn something almost every day.

I know exactly what she means: random reading, in your own home, your relatives’ homes, your friends’ parents’ homes . . . I remember all that.

With electronic readers, that won’t happen. I can spend all day with reading material but I don’t have to encounter anything that doesn’t feed into and reinforce my own cultural, spiritual, and political points of view, unless I seek it out, which I do on occasion, but which is often discomforting.

So I’ve come to think of my childhood reading as “serendipitous” reading.

Yup. This next part is a little . . . well, see what you think:

For some time I lamented it as a personal loss for kids these days, but it occurred to me lying in bed with my smashed toe, bruised knee, and twisted back (not to mention snoring husband) that there’s also a huge cultural danger in this loss of the physical book. I remember Fahrenheit 451 and the people memorizing books because they were the repository of the views and the wisdom of the world and they had to keep them alive. Our electronic books are alive until some mega-something-or-other (governmental, corporate, religious, political, or whatever) decides to delete them from our e-readers and our collective consciousness. But a physical book can be stashed away and discovered 2,000 years later, as we well know, and change the world. Its potential for subversion is unequaled.

And the conclusion:

Well, there it is, for what it’s worth. Oh wait, there’s more, but it fits. An old lady in the early ’90s told me she thought she had identified the beast of the end times, and it was the Internet and artificial intelligence. I laughed at the time. I shouldn’t have. What is more frightening than an intellect with tremendous cognitive power, but no soul?

Maybe I’m just a cranky old lady with a bruised toe and a wrenched back. I hope so.

I don’t know.

Incidentally, I am put in mind of an excellent, unusual book:  Digital Barbarism, by Mark Helprin, published in 2009.

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