Good-bye to All That? Elegies for the Book

Good-bye to All That? Elegies for the Book

Near the beginning of A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession: A Romance, an obscure, despondent literary scholar, Roland Mitchell, has a thought that will preoccupy him throughout the remainder of the book. It will inspire his subsequent growth as an intellectual and also as a man. “He felt as though he was prying, as though he was being uselessly urged on by some violent emotion of curiosity—not greed, curiosity, more fundamental than even sex, the desire for knowledge.”

A spate of books—discursive volumes built mostly out of personal essays—has appeared in recent years that seeks to explore just this: the incomparable pull of words on the page. What sets them apart from other, earlier books on books is an internal tension between lyrical evocation of the pleasures of book reading, collecting, even handling, and a keen uneasiness about the future of those very pleasures. Edgy, and often infused with an air of resignation, these books little resemble Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading (1989) or Andrew Delbanco’s Required Reading (1997), both products of the culture wars of the 1980s and early 1990s. They resemble more the surprisingly large number of recent books about the impact on one’s mental health of a year or so of reading only Proust. But these books on books are preoccupied by something more basic: the question of whether any serious book—whether by Proust or Graham Greene—will retain in the near future, and in the wake of the cultural changes in technology all around us, little more than a cult-like, minuscule following. Will such prose be just about as obscure, even for the intelligent consumers of culture, as the English of the King James Bible seems today? These books on books bristle with anxiety or, at least, the sense that theirs is a record of past pleasures that may never be replicated. Some are angry, others exude despair; they represent an intriguing, curious manifestation of fin-de-siècle unease.

The fundamental question underlying them is, quite simply, whether books—like, say, fountain pens or manual typewriters—are now, or will soon be, the province of the picturesque, remnants of a slower, bygone age. They take for granted that ours is a time in which both the production and dispersal of human knowledge is being redefined. What does this mean, they ask, about the future of knowledge and literacy, and, perhaps more pertinently, about the future of a subtle, supple take on the world that so many have credited to extensive, expansive reading? Is Bill Gates—whose name, as I recall, appears in none of these books but whose ubiquitous achievements seem to haunt them all—the Genghis Khan of literacy or Gutenberg’s natural heir?

It’s worth noting that these are all books written by authors just at the cusp of middle age—writers aware now, no doubt more acutely than a few years earlier in their lives, of the impermanence of things, of how easily on...