In praise of words, not books

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Speaking writer to readers, I want to register some year-end thoughts on climate change in the realm of reading.

Begin with technology. Canadians can finally buy Kindle e-readers. I know there are people who'd rather these had never got here. They say they'll miss the tactility of print on paper, the rustle of turning pages, etc. Yet this may pass. When computers first appeared, I constructed a complex argument against writing with them -- something about it being anti-creative. Then, one day, the prices dropped and suddenly I couldn't recall my objections.

Besides, the classic form of the book is irrational. Why always have two pages open when you read one at a time? A single screen or page makes greater sense. In fact, since you read line by line, a cellphone may be even more apt than a tablet or Kindle.

I also know people would miss their shelves sagging with beloved books, but to future generations, those shelves may look like forms of ostentation, self-advertisement and conspicuous consumption. I once lost a big collection of Hebrew books I was in love with. I told a rabbinical friend that I'd give my arm to get them back. I expected sympathy but he said: This is idolatry, stop it! I never forgot that. There's something to be gained from certain losses.

And consider the economic and ecological upside: saving trees and forests; eliminating dangerous work in the woods or dreary tasks like delivering papers at 3 a.m. Of course, due to the stupid nature of capitalism, what ought to be liberating arrives instead as a source of terror when those lousy jobs vanish. Some day, our species will get this kind of tech change right.

Now let's gaze into the abyss. What if these changes lead to a decline in reading? Would it really be such a bad thing? Whoops, did I say that? I think I just stumbled into a sacred cow. No one can be against reading, can they? Yet I watched a series on TVOntario this fall called Empire of the Word, hosted by ardent book lover Alberto Manguel, based on his own book, A History of Reading. The title implied that words equal books. But words actually belong to speech, which is the real human specific. They preceded writing by millennia. Writing came far later and was a dumbed-down version of speech's richness. Then, for more millennia, the two coexisted fruitfully as the oral and written traditions. Finally, with print, 500 years ago, their balance was destroyed. Literacy became the sign of "civilization"; those without it were "primitive."

Canada's greatest thinker, Harold Innis, felt that this loss of balance and the triumph of reading over speech led to the excesses of nationalism, world wars and other barbarities of the 20th century. How could books engender such cruelty? Well, there is something inherently cruel about a book, as opposed to a bard, a teacher or a friend. Books never acknowledge you back, no matter how you adore them. They're indifferent to human response. Readers ignore this harshness; they even cuddle up with their books. But a book won't ever cuddle you back and you must harden yourself to it somehow. In my experience, there's no correlation between being well-read and being an empathic, kind person. Often enough, it's the reverse.

What humanizes libraries, for instance, isn't books; it's librarians! I once asked Mr. Manguel, a very warm person, if he ever thought books might have an ugly downside. "No," he said instantly. Yet his series in praise of reading opens with a recreation of the teenaged Manguel in Argentina meeting writer Jorge Luis Borges, who has gone blind and asks young Albie to read to him. The voiceover says he learned to love books at those sessions. But what you see onscreen is a living exchange of feeling between two people. It was speech that forged their bond, not print, and not books.

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