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Good Letters

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

A woman stands at the front of the bookstore now, holding in her hand, like a teacup, a slate-thin portable device. She is warm and inviting and beckons everyone over to her station, as though they are old acquaintances, come to call.

Finger sandwiches, tea napkins, and a vase full of violets could sit on the table for the friendliness of the encounter she portends.

Most people politely refuse her invitation, bowing their heads, shaking them in kind regret. Others duck over to the magazine rack as they avert their eyes, or stroll determinedly toward the shelves that lie behind her, as though making for safety on a distant shore. Notice, there are fewer and fewer actual books on those shelves now; there are more and more games and gifts and stationery.

Nevertheless, some people—enough—stroll over; curiosity gets the better, as it will. And after a market-calculated span of time, perhaps not more than sixty seconds, the guest’s eyes can begin to sparkle. An interjection of wonder issues forth at the entertainments she displays with her tablet.

By then, of course, she has them. The seed is planted. But in this oddest of new intimacies, the invitation the caller has accepted signals—if not now, then soon—the shuttering of the house, and perhaps even the end of the affair.

Each who takes what is offered from that delicate hand—“I believe I will,” they say—unwittingly or not, is part of an old transaction coming to a final pass, or at least to a very different one. In the near future, we will find ourselves one small step back, at a slightly further remove, from a function we have always known.

Like a car show room in which nothing you see is actually for sale, the bookstore may well become a place where you can hold, thumb, and peruse what you cannot actually buy. Test drive it all you like, over a cup of macchiato, but if you truly want to possess one, it will have to be ordered online.

The language itself could have told us this would happen. At a point in time, the “mower” was what you called the man who mowed the grass. He used a scythe to shear the blades, and there was a clear and distinct separation between the doer, the doing, and the thing it was done to.

But then the industrial revolution came along, and the “mower” became the machine. The man became the one who operated the device, put it through its paces, but it was not his muscle and agility that performed the task. He no longer felt the pressure of the world against his impulse—was no longer aware in his own body of what the resistance of rock against hammer or tree against saw really meant.

The machine, with all of its grand abilities, became the doer—the blender, the cooker, the lighter, the player, the computer. Life is better for the transition, none would doubt. And yet, it must be said, what we call life has changed by each step back—by each retirement from action—as we move further and further into the rocking chairs of our brains, further and further from the fields in which we worked and moved and had our being.

So now it is the “reader” that takes the fore. No one saw it coming, and its arrival cannot realistically be regretted. Thousands of books stored in the size of an envelope, available anywhere you are, and you say you’re sad about it?

Not that much will change anyhow, we’re assured. See? The page is the same, for all intents and purposes—except you can manipulate it—its size and appearance and light. If you want to use your finger to turn it, you can. Go ahead—use your finger. You don’t need to, of course, they say (amused at your quaintness) but go right ahead.

There’s even a tiresomeness to the standard plaint, a touch of the Luddite about those who carry on and on about how they love the feel of the actual page and cannot bear the thought of this, that, or the other thing replacing it. In truth, the action of moving the eyes over the printed words and the registry of concepts in the brain’s chambers will not be altered one whit.

But is what lies beneath this alarm not what has always lain beneath such change? Slopes are no less slippery just because Cassandra warns us they are so.

Is there something lost, however slight, in the human body’s lack of integration with the world in which it is? Do we pull towards “angelism”—tilt towards pretense at creatures of pure intellect that we cannot truly be—when we lose the need for our muscles and sinews and the knowledge of how to hoist, to heft, even to turn the page? Is there some point when our bodies become more and more vestigial, and we wind up compromising some crucial interdependency with the thing it took six whole days and a God above to make?

My niece told me the other day that she had dropped her phone in the water accidentally. No longer could she hear people’s voices if they called. But she said it didn’t really matter. She wouldn’t miss that function. All anyone does is text these days. No one talks now, I was informed—to my everlasting wonder.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: A.G. Harmon

A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

1 Comment

  1. Kim Fennell on June 11, 2017 at 7:44 am

    I’m quite moved by this, AG. One of my best reader friends has succumbed to watching video documentaries every night for the last few years instead of reading non-fiction books. I listen to podcasts & library books from room to room and in the car. My 20 year book club is limping along, from what, i haven’t diagnosed. Missing your insight! Looking for articles…

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