I often wonder about the fate of the library. I imagine its wrinkles are setting in, its cheeks hollowing out. A few more decades, and it will recede like an old man’s hairline, back into the past. Here lies an archaeological ruin of intellect, a pioneer in the pursuit of knowledge.
“Books smell like old people,” a New Haven student says. I picture a huddle of desolate novels, aged and beige, crumbling slowly from the lack of touch, the lack of love.
An old-age home for literature. Is that what a library has become?
In an article for The New Yorker, titled ‘Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?’, David Denby highlights the significant decline in reading amongst today’s youth. It has become a “chore”, a “weak, petulant claimant on [our] time,” he states. A part of me, the ardent bibliophile, finds this inconceivable. Yet it is the truth.
Two weeks ago, I saw a group of students engaging in some kind of modern ritual. They sat in a circle, backs bent in worship, their eyes fixated on the screens in their palms. Nobody spoke. Nobody looked up. Not a single book was in sight. Their fingers moved swiftly, as if they could tap and swipe their way into an alternate universe. Such was the power of their devotion. They were somewhere else, a fantastical bubble that could not be reached. A place where human expression was replaced with emojis.
And this was supposed to be a literature class.
Screens have become our lifeboats and we cannot stop clinging. Denby mentions that because of this, today’s youth is engulfed with more words than ever, so technically they are reading more. But they amass only broken shells of knowledge – texts, tweets, blogs, articles – the debris of fuller ideas. Reading something longer and more complex makes them shudder. The trendy likes of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are manageable. But suggest some Hemingway and they just blink at you.
It seems that in the tsunami of technological progress, books and literature have become the flotsam. Not only is this limiting the development of critical thinking skills, but also the ability to form more voluptuous opinions. But what can be expected from the generation that’s more fluent in iSpeak than their mother tongues? We are continuously pruning our words into whatever’s easier to digest – ‘cool’ is ‘kwl’. ‘It’s lit’ could mean the party’s going down, but not literature or anything. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing this. But it’s come to a point where our bite-size reading and bitten-down words are encroaching upon well-articulate writing. Today’s adolescents balk at Balzac but will gladly polish off 500 + meaningless tweets. It doesn’t require much thinking or effort or learning, you see.
My English teacher used to say that “literature is life”– trite but perfect. Deepening our reading nourishes our capacity for empathy and our understanding of human actions and emotions. We learn to recognize the various shades of villainy and virtue in the ‘characters’ around us. In his article, Denby asks: “Could a country that had widely read ‘Huckleberry Finn’ have taken Donald J. Trump seriously for a second? Twain’s readers… [would] know what a bullying con artist sounds like.”
Literature and reading are as intrinsic to me as gravity. So I find it difficult to ‘sell’ the notion of reading more books to other people; I feel like I’m endorsing what should just be common sense. To me, reading is the act of turning a page of the mind. That’s why I relish books that shake up my views, like marbles in a jar.
But I worry that in the future, literature will acquire the gilded elitism of classical music – a niche for nostalgic fanatics. Or old people. I worry that libraries and bookshops will one day dismantle their shelves. But I still carry hope in the margins of my thoughts. Perhaps the Kindle or the rise of e-books will resurrect our reading culture. Or perhaps we will realize how ridiculous it is to disregard something we’re so similar to. For someone once told me that humans are just like books; we all have spines and stories to tell.