➻ One can have their heart broken by a place. What seems like a move forward to many can devastate a community, make obsolete a tradition that has made a place what it is, that has shaped the people of that place into who or what they’ve become. The decision to close a bookshop where a future writer stumbled upon Sartre, or to shutter a theater in which an artist had “an early inkling that there might be a difference between a film with good intentions and a good film,” can feel like cutting off one’s own limbs, can crush us as much as losing a long-time lover to a new suitor.
Those examples come from a recent article by the wonderful Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth, On Beauty, Changing My Mind, and the upcoming NW. Her piece in The New York Review of Books is on The North West London Blues she’s come down with upon learning of the decision to close the bookshop and reduce the Willesden Green library she fell in love with literature in to make way for private, luxury flats. In that article, she writes about the problem of libraries today:
What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell. Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library in which I write this, despite the fact every single student in here could be at home in front of their macbook browsing Google Books. And Kilburn Library—also run by Brent Council but situated, despite its name, in affluent Queen’s Park—is not only thriving but closed for refurbishment. Kensal Rise is being closed not because it is unpopular but because it is unprofitable, this despite the fact that the friends of Kensal Rise library are willing to run their library themselves (if All Souls College, Oxford, which owns the library, will let them.) Meanwhile it is hard not to conclude that Willesden Green is being mutilated not least because the members of the council see the opportunity for a sweet real estate deal.
All libraries have a different character and setting. Some are primarily for children or primarily for students, or the general public, primarily full of books or microfilms or digitized material or with a café in the basement or a market out front. Libraries are not failing “because they are libraries.” Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.
In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible. The only others that come readily to my mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership. It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep re-stating the obvious. There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.
I don’t think the argument in favor of libraries is especially ideological or ethical. I would even agree with those who say it’s not especially logical. I think for most people it’s emotional. Not logos or ethos but pathos. This is not a denigration: emotion also has a place in public policy. We’re humans, not robots. The people protesting the closing of Kensal Rise Library love that library. They were open to any solution on the left or on the right if it meant keeping their library open. They were ready to Big Society the hell out of that place. A library is one of those social goods that matter to people of many different political attitudes. All that the friends of Kensal Rise and Willesden Library and similar services throughout the country are saying is: these places are important to us. We get that money is tight, we understand that there is a hierarchy of needs, and that the French Market or a Mark Twain plaque are not hospital beds and classroom size. But they are still a significant part of our social reality, the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet.
If the losses of private companies are to be socialized within already struggling communities the very least we can do is listen to people when they try to tell us where in the hierarchy of their needs things like public space, access to culture, and preservation of environment lie.
I fully share Ms. Smith’s naivete here. I also share her belief that public space can’t be replicated or replaced by the very real and wonderful enticement of the digital world. Amazon, for all its obvious strengths, cannot enhance a community’s character as a local bookstore can. A library of free books online cannot replicate or replace the serenity or intellectual serendipity that one finds in a local library.
➻ “Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone.” —Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203
➻ Judging from a conversation between Neil Young and Patti Smith at B.E.A. this week, Young has similar feelings that something is being lost in the digitization of music:
“I was talking about my new record the other day to an interviewer who knew lots of things, or thought he did,” he said. “And he said that the new record sounded very underproduced. ‘What did you listen to it on?’ I asked him, and of course it was an MP3 on a Mac. We used to struggle to make these things sound great. It’s like reducing a Picasso to wallpaper. Who did that? You can hardly see. You can hardly feel it.” [...]
As the conversation wound down, Young once again worried over the creep of technology. “The decline of improvisation in music,” he said, “coincided with the decline of resolution in digital feedback. Now things are more condensed and organized. There’s even the ugly word ‘quantized.’ The technology we’ve been burdened with by content providers is very, very, very stifling and very neglectful of the muse.”
I swear I’m not a Luddite. I’m writing this on a digital device, and I love my iPhone with its music library and its Words with Friends and the ability to call my mother by touching a screen twice and not having to worry about how much it’s going to cost me to do so. I believe that one day we’ll be able to stare up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling without actually being inside the Sistine Chapel, and that’s going to be wonderful for education and the arts. But, I also believe that reality is analog, “a continuous flow of signal” as it were, and that as much as we digitize our own creations, the future of creation will continue to exist in analog.
And as much as I appreciate having a music library on my phone, I really do love me Neil Young’s “Harvest” playing on a vinyl record through a solid state receiver and Pioneer CS-801 speakers.
➻ “I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That’s a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don’t know—you haven’t done it yet. You must live life at the top of your voice! At the top of your lungs shout and listen to the echoes.” —Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203
➻ I know I link to Nicholas Carr far too often here, but he keeps on coming up with profoundly simple, yet compelling insights that escape most of us—or at least me—such as Books Ain’t Music. After discussing his own (and everyone else’s) music piracy dating back to the ’70s, he delves into the many differences between books and music, one of which is:
The average music buyer is younger than the average book buyer. Young people have long been a primary market for popular music. Young people also tend to have the spare time, the tech savvy, the obliviousness to risk, the constrained wallets, and the passion for music required to do a whole lot of bootlegging. Books tend to be sold to older people. Older people make lousy pirates. That’s another crucial reason why book publishers have been sheltered from piracy in a way that record companies weren’t.
This is a conversation we’ve had for years here at 800-CEO-READ. Being big music fans, and having musicians among us, we look at the recent history of the music industry and wonder if publishing is headed in the same direction. Carr again:
Executives in the publishing industry are probably kidding themselves if they think that they’re responsible for the fact that, so far, their business hasn’t gone through the wrenching changes that have affected their peers in the music business. And if they think they can use the experience of the music business as a guide to plot their own future course, they’re probably kidding themselves there, too. The impending forces of disruption in the book world may resemble the forces that battered the music world, but they’re different in many important ways.
And we’re still left here trying to figure it all out.
➻ “Those aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.” —Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203
And then there was his story “All Summer in a Day,” a perennial middle-school favorite. I remember reading that story very young, when I was still wrestling with English, when I was only beginning to understand that I loved stories more than anything, that books would be my calling. I read that short tale, and when I came to those ruthless final lines I was shattered by them. In the back of the Madison Park library I read that story and cried my little eyes out. I had never been moved like that by any piece of art. I had never known what I’d been experiencing as an immigrant, never had language for it until I read that story. In a few short pages, Bradbury gave me back to myself.
Ray Bradbury died on Tuesday.
➻ Again from the The Paris Review‘s Art of Fiction No. 203 with Ray Bradbury.
Ray Bradbury: The need for romance is constant, and again, it’s pooh-poohed by intellectuals. As a result they’re going to stunt their kids. You can’t kill a dream. Social obligation has to come from living with some sense of style, high adventure, and romance. It’s like my friend Mr. Electrico.
The Paris Review: That’s the character who makes a brief appearance in Something Wicked This Way Comes, right? And you’ve often spoken of a real-life Mr. Electrico, though no scholar has ever been able to confirm his existence. The story has taken on a kind of mythic stature—the director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies calls the search for Mr. Electrico the “Holy Grail” of Bradbury scholarship.
RB: Yes, but he was a real man. That was his real name. Circuses and carnivals were always passing through Illinois during my childhood and I was in love with their mystery. One autumn weekend in 1932, when I was twelve years old, the Dill Brothers Combined Shows came to town. One of the performers was Mr. Electrico. He sat in an electric chair. A stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end.
The next day, I had to go the funeral of one of my favorite uncles. Driving back from the graveyard with my family, I looked down the hill toward the shoreline of Lake Michigan and I saw the tents and the flags of the carnival and I said to my father, Stop the car. He said, What do you mean? And I said, I have to get out. My father was furious with me. He expected me to stay with the family to mourn, but I got out of the car anyway and I ran down the hill toward the carnival.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I was running away from death, wasn’t I? I was running toward life. And there was Mr. Electrico sitting on the platform out in front of the carnival and I didn’t know what to say. I was scared of making a fool of myself. I had a magic trick in my pocket, one of those little ball-and-vase tricks—a little container that had a ball in it that you make disappear and reappear—and I got that out and asked, Can you show me how to do this? It was the right thing to do. It made a contact. He knew he was talking to a young magician. He took it, showed me how to do it, gave it back to me, then he looked at my face and said, Would you like to meet those people in that tent over there? Those strange people? And I said, Yes sir, I would. So he led me over there and he hit the tent with his cane and said, Clean up your language! Clean up your language! He took me in, and the first person I met was the illustrated man. Isn’t that wonderful? The Illustrated Man! He called himself the tattooed man, but I changed his name later for my book. I also met the strong man, the fat lady, the trapeze people, the dwarf, and the skeleton. They all became characters.
Mr. Electrico was a beautiful man, see, because he knew that he had a little weird kid there who was twelve years old and wanted lots of things. We walked along the shore of Lake Michigan and he treated me like a grown-up. I talked my big philosophies and he talked his little ones. Then we went out and sat on the dunes near the lake and all of a sudden he leaned over and said, I’m glad you’re back in my life. I said, What do you mean? I don’t know you. He said, You were my best friend outside of Paris in 1918. You were wounded in the Ardennes and you died in my arms there. I’m glad you’re back in the world. You have a different face, a different name, but the soul shining out of your face is the same as my friend. Welcome back.
Now why did he say that? Explain that to me, why? Maybe he had a dead son, maybe he had no sons, maybe he was lonely, maybe he was an ironical jokester. Who knows? It could be that he saw the intensity with which I live. Every once in a while at a book signing I see young boys and girls who are so full of fire that it shines out of their face and you pay more attention to that. Maybe that’s what attracted him.
When I left the carnival that day I stood by the carousel and I watched the horses running around and around to the music of “Beautiful Ohio,” and I cried. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I knew something important had happened to me that day because of Mr. Electrico. I felt changed. He gave me importance, immortality, a mystical gift. My life was turned around completely. It makes me cold all over to think about it, but I went home and within days I started to write. I’ve never stopped.
Seventy-seven years ago, and I’ve remembered it perfectly. I went back and saw him that night. He sat in the chair with his sword, they pulled the switch, and his hair stood up. He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.
Ray Bradbury did not die on Tuesday.
➻ In My Blakean Year.