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Prancers on the Page

Spring 2010

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


President
Professor of Spanish
Texas A&M International University

5201 University Boulevard, Laredo, TX 78041-1900 Work956.326.2100