Sunday, January 12, 2020

Books? Yes, we have books.

In the 1960 movie, The Time Machine, there's a memorable scene.

The hero, played by Rod Taylor, is an inventor who lives in late nineteenth century London.  He has built a time machine.  He uses it to journey 800,000 years into the future where he finds a world in which, at first glance, everything is a kind of paradise.  The people are docile and seemingly happy, wearing Roman-toga-like clothes and doing, basically, nothing.  Worry doesn't exist.  Strangely, all their food, in the form of oversized fruit, is provided for them.  By whom?

Taylor, fascinated and curious, seeks to find out more about these people, called the Eloi.  His questions are answered indifferently, in the most monosyllabic way:  "What kind of government rules your world?" Taylor asks.  "We have no government," an Eloi responds.

"Do you have books?" Taylor asks excitedly.

"Books? Yes, we have books." replies another Eloi.

The Eloi leads Taylor to an ancient library.  The place looks like Miss Havisham's house--ratty curtains, dust everywhere.  The Eloi points to a shelf of books.  Excitedly, Taylor pulls out a book.  At last, he will find out about this "civilization." He opens the book, and it crumbles in his hand. So does the next book.  He sweeps his hand across a row of books on the shelf, and they all disintegrate. (The whole scene is fantastic.  Check it out here.)

The Eloi, he realizes, are mindless.  Worse, they don't care.

When I saw this movie the year it came out, I viewed it as science fiction.  I've never been attracted to that genre, but now I see that H.G. Wells, who wrote the book, was a seer.

With the advent of the electronic age, with Kindle, tablets, smart phones, etc., books as actual artifacts are becoming less viable.  Walk onto any bus or subway, and see how many people are reading actual books versus reading from a device of some kind.  Libraries are buying less and less books, more electronic subscriptions.

I led a panel at a literary conference a few years ago in which an editor--yes, an editor--said that books had had a good run, but that run was over.

Is he right?  Will some Rod Taylor of the future walk into the Library of Congress and ask someone there, "Do you have books?"

And will that person say, "Books?  Yes, we have books."

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