“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend,” said Groucho Marx. “Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
Remember books? Quaint little things, weren’t they? They had “covers” and “pages,” made of an archaic material the natives called “paper,” or “parchment,” or “papyrus.” They had substance. They had heft. They smelled good. (Don’t deny it. You know you’ve picked up an old book, cracked it open, and given it a good deep sniff. A heady fragrance, isn’t it?)
These enchanting artifacts were often found happily gathered in their natural habitat of libraries, or in retail establishments known as bookstores, and they were pretty much ubiquitous in schools. But that was then. Now, our children no longer get books at school – they get links.
Back when I was a student – just before water was invented – the beginning of the year was always peppered with rituals around your new textbooks. I have fond memories of creating book covers by cutting up brown-paper supermarket bags (yet another relic of the wayback machine) tailored to the size of each book, folding and taping for a perfect fit. The more motivated and inventive of us went one step further and decorated them with stickers and magazine pictures and Magic Markers (those smelled good, too). And there was always the delight of seeing the name of a prior year’s student written on the inside cover establishing ownership, or even a list of names, each one crossed out. Clearly, it never occurred to anyone that they’d have to give the thing back at the end of the year.
When we were kids and we had a burning question about some obscure detail or historical factoid, our parents’ inevitable response was, “Look it up!” Whereupon we’d scramble breathlessly to our rooms and pull down a thick, hardbound edition of the World Book and begin methodically leafing through the alphabetized topics until we came upon the information we sought, attended by a rewarding sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Now they just lift their phones and start thumb-typing – in the bathroom. Where’s the wonder and joy of the quest for discovery and enlightenment? It’s become a meme, apparently. On the plus side, paper cut incidents are way down in recent years.
I’ve also observed more and more frequently that when I ask my high-school-aged son what the class read in school that day, the inevitable answer comes back, “a video.” When I was in school (and I cannot begin to tell you how much that phrase irritates my children) it was an extremely rare day that the teacher would roll a rickety metal cart with a TV set perched on top into the room. It was everything we could do not to burst out cheering. It meant the fluorescent lights would be turned off. It meant we could nap surreptitiously in the dark. It meant you could produce anonymous fart noises with impunity. Today, the in-class video has become a ho-hum, everyday occurrence playing out on a Chromebook – or worse, a phone – completely devoid of the magic and mystery it once held.
Of course, the current paucity of books in our learning environments has delivered one positive outcome: the diminishment of the Dewey Decimal System (no offense to Mr. Dewey) – a structure so confounding that it put the Periodic Table of Elements to shame – alchemy for librarians. And we were expected to learn, understand, and use it! Google, where were you when I needed you?
Books, it seems, have gone the way of the dodo, the milkman, and cursive writing. Which leaves us with the ultimate question: What on earth are they carrying around in all those backpacks?
Robert Shaffron is a local realtor, husband, dad to teenaged sons, and lapsed playwright. He confesses to having read a book or two on his phone.