In a recent Poet in the City post, Lockie McKinnon muses on the assumption by some people (led in this instance by economist Dambisa Moyo) that society can get along fine without the arts as long as we focus on science. Lockie argues passionately that, despite the current regime of cuts, we must retain art as an equal partner with science. Although science may offer us water and food, our motivation for life itself and our understanding of ourselves comes from the arts (not his words, but this is what I understand from the example Lockie gives of Alberto Manguel’s Colombian villagers in The Library at Night choosing the Iliad as the one book that they refused to return to the travelling library). He finishes with an appeal to join a local library to oppose cuts.
I’ve been thinking about this post and wondering why, when I wholeheartedly agree that we cannot contemplate life or society without art, I felt hesitant about committing to the libraries campaign.
Today in The Independent, Mary Dejevksy asserts that “our view of libraries is sepia-tinted” and I knew, considering my own behaviour, that this is true.
Despite being a keen reader, and definitely old enough to know how important libraries have been in encouraging reading, I never use them. The last time I went into my local library to find a book (which they didn’t have, but did order for me), was 2001, I think. Since then, I’ve never encountered a “finding” challenge that I couldn’t solve using the Internet. The process is much quicker and entirely under my control. I can read reviews to help me determine whether to take my search any further; I can find summaries, excerpts or entire texts that sometimes supply all I need, depending on the reason for my search. Many great books are free, for example, via Project Gutenberg, and if I decide to buy a book, I can usually find it at a reasonable price. Definitions, interpretations, background and context are literally at my fingertips via links or online search, while I read, wherever I’m reading. Travel-wise, the convenience of instant download and reading books on my Kindle or iPhone is unparalleled. The books cost less than they do in hard copy, I don’t have to carry the extra kilos, and I don’t have to return them to anyone on time.
Of course, I’m aware of the digital divide and I know that, right now, reading devices are still relatively expensive, but digital reading will inevitably become ubiquitous as prices go down and it fits better into our busy lives. It also opens wonderful new possibilities for narrative, as witness these collections from the Electronic Literature Organisation: Volume 1 and the recently published Volume 2. One of my favourite digital poets is Peter Howard, whose e-poems use digital facilities in a non-trivial way to support and/or convey the poems’ intent, and manage to be aesthetic at the same time (surprise, complexity, intelligibility and beauty are a rare combination in the still-nascent world of e-poetry). See, for example, A Poppy. He is also a master of pace and comic timing, which many digital poets are not (yet). See Xylo and Portrait of the Artist.
As we navigate the explosion of data on the web, I believe that there will always be a role for reading guides or facilitators, people who inspire and encourage us to read, experts who not only curate directories of literature and suggest what to read, but also teach us how to engage with what we read, and to read critically, so that we grow through these encounters, but I doubt whether libraries as we currently know them are optimally suited to this task.
For anyone interested in pursuing this topic, The Institute for the Future of the Book is a great resource and their blog if:book addresses developments in reading. You can also find new thoughts on the evolution of the creation and consumption of communications across all media on Transliteracy.com.