Friday, July 13, 2012

Step Away from Ray Bradbury's Bonfire

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Vaultboy (Flickr)
I do not like speaking ill of one of my favorite authors, just as I hate to sound critical of fellow teachers or lovers of literature, since we share common cause in learning and the life of the mind. But a bonfire is burning, Bradbury's bonfire, and we who believe we care about books had better pay attention that we do not join him, tossing to the flames the very things we thought we cherished.

Bradbury burning books? The author of Farenheit 451? What high school student has not chilled at Bradbury's depiction of those firemen of the future ferreting out books and burning them? Who has not sensed that something is terribly wrong with any group who will put the torch to the written word? Those who burn books are the ignorant, the tyrannous, the bigoted, and the anti-intellectual.

They may be us, if we do not take care. Some are more culpable than others. I once chided my wife for throwing out a manuscript of mine, but of course she would never have done so had she realized the content. And that is why those who value the content of books are especially culpable if we are party to any bonfire of the books.

But that is what I am accusing us of. We, like Bradbury, may end up destroying the thing we love by clinging too closely to the physical format of the book. As Staci Kramer pointed out in an editorial right after Bradbury's death in 2012, a terrible irony attended his passing. With so much attention to this man and his works, almost nothing of his could be found in electronic form. Why?

Because that is how he wanted it. “My God, all this Internet stuff is pure crap," said Bradbury to a group at the Waukegan Public Library at one of his later public appearances, insisting on the printed book as its only true form. With very minor exception, Bradbury would not allow his books to appear in electronic form. As Kramer put it, "for Bradbury reading equaled print." He associated the printed book with the communities of readers that gather around books, and he saw the computer as something that isolates readers and provides them an inferior experience with the text. 

Bradbury was wrong, and it is his many potential readers who suffered from his short-sightedness. By not allowing his work to migrate to digital forms, he effectively burned his own books. Oh, certainly, his books remain in printed form. But the point is that by insisting upon a specific (and quickly dating) physical format for books, the net result is effectively taking those books out of circulation. Today, for a book to be "in print" it must not be (exclusively) in print. 

I know that many of my fellow English teachers do not appreciate this. They wax rhapsodic about their experiences with printed books exactly the way Bradbury and other bibliophiles have done (I am thinking of Robert Darnton's The Case for Books, among many such recent ruminations by the digitally dubious). I do not fault them for such experiences. I have my own. In any house fire I would race right past the dogs and rescue my heirloom copy of Emerson's Essays my father gave me with all his notes from reading it aboard a minesweeper in World War II. But I am far more likely to engage my children in Emerson through digital devices, both literal and figurative.

Print isn't dead; it just isn't the main living thing. And anyone who acts otherwise has managed to live in the past while literary culture has migrated, en masse, online: authors no longer live as names on book covers and as occasional celebrities at book signings; they have websites and social media streams. Readers no longer just read the printed book; they look up movie and audio versions. They discuss their reading on Facebook. They find books based on automated recommendations from Amazon. They gather in online book groups. They write fan fiction and exchange drafts online. They trade used books online and read sample chapters in electronic form from established or new authors. They read books through apps on smartphones and they share favorite passages through social media. It is a brave new literary world.

I am not against printed books. I am sitting in an office of perhaps 2000 printed books right now, including some of Bradbury's. I could not find my copy of Long After Midnight, though, on the day he died. What had I done with my favorite compilation of Bradbury's stories? I am a better custodian of my copy of Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris, which remains (along with my notes on the text) in Amazon's cloud and can be downloaded as readily to my iPad as to any computer browser and will not be destroyed when I drop my iPhone in water the way I have dropped paper books in bathtubs or lakes. 

Oh, I love printed books and even some specific copies that have been friends for years. But those who learn to read and annotate books digitally are going to end up more literate than those of us who must have that tree pulp in hand. And it isn't just a matter of convenience, though that matters. It is a matter of community and connection. Ironically, the very thing for which Bradbury faulted reading on the computer -- isolation -- is less likely with digital texts, which not only contain methods for quick sharing and interaction, but which are nested in a context of social media in which it is natural and desirable to share what one is reading with others.

I guess Bradbury didn't have a Kindle, so he wouldn't relate to my teenager's excitement about being able to get, instantly, the next book in the Hunger Games series he was reading while we were miles and hours from any library or bookstore. He could not relate to my aging father whose Kindle allowed him, magically, to resume his voracious reading simply because he could increase the font size at will. And I don't suppose Bradbury had a Goodreads account, where communities form around books and encourage more reading and more sharing of literary experiences. And I suppose Bradbury, fondling the dog-eared copy of his favorite novel, would never notice the ways that digital tools have resurrected lost and neglected texts, enhanced classic works, and generally increased the cultural capital of our literary canon.

No, Bradbury -- whom I still love and admire as an author -- began working against literacy as he stood firmly against any change in how literacy is to be sustained. At a certain point, the conservative impulse to preserve form is no longer nostalgia, nor simple preference. It is a choice to step away from the dominant cultural medium, a choice to exclude the masses, a choice to be self-satisfyingly exclusive, as though knowledge thrives the more it is restricted rather than the more that it is shared.

Insisting on a primarily print literacy is also a choice to disenfranchise the rising generation. At some point, teachers who do not embrace eBooks or who mock or minimize the role of social media in learning should not be trusted as genuine custodians of literary culture, because they will not be. It is comparable to insisting upon an oral-only education after Gutenberg. Today, you don't get to have a digitally-free literary culture anymore. That period has passed. To insist otherwise is to join Bradbury's fruitless crusade to restrict literacy to the comfortable terms through which he was initiated. It is a restriction that smacks of censorship and that carries the sickening smell of burning books.

Of course Bradbury did not mean to set fire to his books. He thought he was preserving them by insisting on their print format. But he set fire to them nonetheless. Kramer points out the great irony of Bradbury's bonfire by reminding us of another of his works that preceded Farenheit 451. That work, a story called "The Exiles,"
is about a colony of authors, including Charles Dickens, L. Frank Baum and Ambrose Bierce, on Mars who survive as long as their books stay in print and die as their books are destroyed on Earth. (Spoiler) An astronaut annihilates the colony when he burns the last books. It didn’t occur to him in that story — or as far as I know — any others that books could die if they were only in print, that the content — and the authors — could live on through other formats.
Had Bradbury not relented about electronic publication just before his death, his own works might have followed suit, effectively becoming out of print and therefore dying by his excluding them from the emergent, dominant, digital format.

I believe that those of us who teach language and literacy have an obligation to give to students training in the dominant communication medium of our day. If we choose to stay with Ray Bradbury in a print-culture world, the literacy we sustain for ourselves or our pupils will yellow like the acid-washed pulp of the periodicals and paperbacks in which Bradbury published. We will be teaching our students not to join the communities where literature is discussed. Books will be associated with an isolated mode of education, and not with public life or life-long learning.

We owe it to our students and to the future not to worship the formats of the past, however serviceable those have been. We must be willing to learn and use eBooks, learn and use social media through which content like books are shared and discussed, and we must come to terms with modes of literacy that are not so isolated and impermanent.

English teachers and book people tend to be a conservative lot. But we risk the ability to conserve the ideas and authors of the past if we insist on experiencing them in a legacy format like print. Printed books are such a widely accepted and well-developed form that they will continue to hold great value, but the tide will turn and the eBook will win (especially in institutional settings and for economic reasons if no other). It will be expected that one can search one's book just like one can search a web page. It will be expected that one can link to audio and visual media. It will be normal to bring into literary conversations the ongoing conversations on Twitter, the blogosphere, and whatever succeeds those in the next iteration of socially optimized media.

What will be abnormal will be to keep books within their covers, apart from their expanded uses and audiences. Some people, like Bradbury, will remain content in that limited place, just as certain people only correspond with paper and pen. But those who do the work of the world, those who have influence upon the masses or simply upon the minds of the next generation, will be those who do not join Bradbury's bonfire, cutting themselves and their students off from the present by a romanticized and mistaken overvaluation of a superannuated format from our past.