Prancers on the Page
As is so often the case, Emily Dickinson said it best:
There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry—
Since the 16th century, books as we know them have facilitated, stimulated, and preserved our affective and intellectual life. And their intimate bond with humankind far predates Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 1440s. I am sure each of us has his or her own list of famous encounters, in literature and in life, with books. In the 14th century, Paulo and Francesca, by their own admission, famously lost their souls because of what a book led them to do (“Galeotto fu’libro e chi lo scrisse.”) In the 5th century, St. Augustine’s life forever changed because an angel, in a dream, bade him take up a book and read (“Tolle, lege.”) Don Quijote began as a satire of the power books might hold over our imagination. For me, the reading of Don Quijote during my sophomore year of college aroused a lifelong passion for Spanish literature.
The technological age has vastly enhanced and altered one of the primary responsibilities traditionally consigned to books: to preserve and store up knowledge for our use. One feels this change most felicitously when preparing any sort of document. Facts and dates, formerly bound in encyclopedias and often out of easy reach, now appear instantly at the bidding of Google. With authoritative clarity and speed, web searches recover for us phrases of poetry or famous utterances clouded by time or uncertain memory. Indeed, one can imagine that encyclopedias and dictionaries may soon cease to exist in print editions.
It is indeed exhilarating, especially for forays into literature and philosophy and history, to enjoy instant access to most of what has been written. I recently wanted to locate the passage in which Joseph Schumpeter articulates his famous theory of capitalism and “creative destruction.” On another day, I wanted to find again Shakespeare’s reference to golden lads and chimney sweeps. From the Internet’s vast storehouse came, instantly, the famous passage in Schumpeter’s Capitalism (1942) and Cymbeline, Act IV, scene ii. At no time in history have humans had at their disposition such a powerful tool to support and kindle thought. The screen never sleeps, is never exhausted nor exhaustible. At any moment, it magnificently feeds our need to know.
Yet humanists and bibliophiles together worry about the future of books. Will Google’s plan to scan all the major libraries of the world one day make books obsolete, as curious and exotic as a horse-drawn coach? I think not. The richest treasures of writing, human creativity in arts and letters, demand a long and thoughtful, a quiet and reflective relationship. Poetry, essays, novels, meditations, if they reach deeply into us, establish an intimacy most easily bound in a volume, held in our hands, housed on the shelves of our studies and sitting rooms. In moments both of joy and longing, we can hold the volume that contains the poem or phrases indispensable for equanimity of
spirit. With great emotion we may bequeath that volume to a friend; it carries within its pages our mind and heart, words which capture and hold for us our most cherished experiences.
The goals and outcomes of a university experience have, in recent years, become increasingly concrete and measurable. We want the University to propel each graduate toward a job, a secure place in our economic and social order. We want to see acceptable scores on examinations; outcomes which allow continued study or entry into a profession. The principal tool for generating these outcomes is equally concrete and measurable. Vaster than Borges’ Library of Babel, the worldwide web places the entire expanse of human knowledge at the disposal of anyone able to go online.
While this unbounded, virtual concordance/ encyclopedia/dictionary helps us catalogue, file, and retrieve beauty, I hope each of our graduates carries, into life, in his or her hand a volume of writing, words arranged in that miraculous order we call art. The screen serves us the facts. But the prancers on the page awaken us to reflection, recovery, and a right spirit.
Ray M. Keck III
Professor of Spanish
Texas A&M International University