THE MOORE THINGS CHANGE: They would like to have read!
Two monks sat at their writing desks, quill pens in hand. One said: “I hear they’re now printing books these days.” The other assured: “Just a fad; that will never last.” He was wrong. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention would hold sway for the next 550 years, until a few years ago.
I predict that the book – itself a new technology at its introduction – is going to be around for some time to come, so don’t be too quick to write its obituary.
In its 2 000-year history, from its birthplace in China, paper has revolutionized civilization from the Islamic golden age to the European Renaissance to the 21st century.
I am not a fan of the e-reader, the Nook, the Kindle Fire, or the iPad. Like our Minister of Education, I prefer the tactile sensation of paper; I am turned on to fonts – some folks couldn’t care if the font they’re reading is Arial, Verdana, Papyrus or the pedestrian Times New Roman.
With my pencil, in the margins I tick interesting points and attractive turns of phrase and I lie in wait to catch out authors in typographical errors.
What reading teaches, first and foremost, is how to sit still for long periods and confront time head-on.
A few weeks ago I attended yet another book launch. I say “yet another” because it continues to amaze me that in this arid intellectual desert people continue to publish books. It clearly cannot be in pursuit of financial reward.
I complimented the author for her temerity in joining a steadily growing number of Barbadian writers brave enough to throw several thousand dollars into the printing and distribution of books in a society with so few readers.
I’m assisting a friend with a memoir in which he vividly revives several aspects of Barbadian village life that are either disappearing or have already disappeared. I commend it to you on its launch early next year.
Unless your name is Eric Jerome Dickey, or Tom Clancy, or James Patterson, your effort is a labour of love.
And you should clear out some space under the bed or in the storeroom to tuck away a few boxes of unopened copies if you are so unwise as to print 5 000. There have been only a few authors who have had to order a second printing.
Apart from a daring financial intrepidity, and a king-sized helping of bravado, there has to be some other reason for any Barbadian of the past 30 years to muster up the nerve to publish a book.
If you Google “Barbadian authors” you would be surprised – despite several omissions – at the large number of writers who have dared to publish.
These days all types of inducements are thought up to introduce young people to collide with the joys of reading. It is not easy; there are so many dazzling things vying for their attention.
Reading has become a bore to most people born since 1964 – the year television came to Barbados. They do it at school and university because it is on the curriculum, but few have tasted the joys of reading.
I met one of the few some months ago outside a supermarket. We had an interesting half-hour discussion and I was glad I had decided to leave the ice cream until my next visit. I asked the young man his view on the state of reading among his contemporaries. He replied: “Too much time is wasted on Facebook and Twitter.”
Despite the proliferation of the technology, serious reading seems to have gone out of style, partly because it is not necessary to read anything beyond the literature of one’s occupation in order to make a decent living.
The increasing specialization of the workplace has decreased the demand for the general knowledge that arises from regular reading of books.
Anyway, who needs to write in order to communicate nowadays? The technology is always handy: you don’t even have to bother to search for the appropriate words to express certain emotions and nuances: just click “emoticons” and select the facial expression you wish inserted in your sentence.
I can still see in my memory, standing at the entrance to our gap on Belmont Road, the late Lionel Hutchinson, once librarian of Parliament, with his characteristic hip-hop gait, hurrying up the road with books under both arms borrowed from the Public Library in Bridgetown.
The look on his face resembled someone rushing home to enjoy a sumptuous lunch of cou-cou and flying fish.
A well rounded education no longer confers a social cachet. No great value is attached to being articulate, which is a mark of having read widely. The late John Wickham used to say, wryly: “Most people these days would like to have read.”
We seem to have come to the juncture where the former social advantages of being well-read have become distinct liabilities.
To exercise an extensive vocabulary and display a wide knowledge of the world smacks of elitism in an age of equality. Perhaps the last remaining place of acceptance for such is the political platform from which the speaker can always expect a voice from his adoring audience to shout: “Talk yuh talk, skipper!”
The question for our civilization is not whether people will be able to read, but what they will read. If they only read enough to do their jobs, receive a tweet, or spread some juicy gossip, progress could be impeded by poor communication and a paucity of the disciplined imagination that makes for society’s development.
Mere functional literacy will do little to further our quality of life.
I met a friend on the beach the other morning. Brandishing his brand new Kindle Fire, he boasted: “I have a thousand books on this!”
I begged, “Please sir, can I borrow one?”
• Carl Moore was the first editor of THE NATION and is a social commentator.