The End of Books

Paul Greenberg

12/9/2010 2:12:26 PM - Paul Greenberg

News item, July 8, 2010: "The periodical shelves at Stanford University are nearly bare. Library chief Helen Josephine says that in the past five years, more engineering periodicals have been moved online, making their print versions pretty obsolete -- and books aren't doing much better. ... (E)ventually, there won't be any books on the shelves at all."

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." --Ray Bradbury

The robotic voice, recorded on an endless loop, droned on in the C Level cafetorium, explaining the dangers represented by that dangerous artifact of an earlier civilization, the book.

The bored work crews filtered in and out of the bare hall for their prefabricated rations, pausing now and then to use their OCDs, or Online Communications Devices. Each of the small accessories, just the right size to fit into a pocket of their government-issue coveralls, was licensed, limited and certified to have no more links than necessary to barracks, work station, National Public Agitprop, and the current Top Ten beatmusiks.

Jaws masticated, thumbs clicked keyboards, knees jerked in time with the rap. There was no melody. It had been proscribed by the Prole Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2041, Title XI, Subsection A. The same clause mandated continuous lectures on the danger of preserving any "shards, pottery, ornaments, and/or books, scrolls, inscriptions or fragments thereof which archaeologists, geologists, sewer workers and affiliated trades might encounter" in their excavations.

The crew at lunch was working on the next big transmission tower in the vicinity. The towers by now had largely replaced the forests that had once stood across the countryside, for trees were suspect, too, being possible sources of paper. More towers were constantly being built to keep the public uninformed.

The masses (it was no longer permitted to refer to them as the people) demanded more towers, more Breaking News and broken musik. Anything but silence. Silence was frightening. It might leave them with no recourse but to think. Or just see, and even perceive.

In the background Frequency 24/7 never ceased. "Remember the three As," it was saying. "Beware of keeping any Artifacts, Antiques and/or Adornments, or anything else, you might come across in your dig. Any item containing words or numbers is especially dangerous. All are to be destroyed on-site or turned in to the Central Depository of Hazardous Materials by 1800 of the daycycle they are discovered. Violations will be punished beyond the limits of the law...."

Martin Smith, 0550788A, was listening only now and then. He tried not to think of the little souvenir he had picked up yestercycle when the telescreens were momentarily out of order. Better not to think at all lest one be discovered at it. It was remarkable how the Thought Police and their informers could read faces and detect badthink.

"What traitors books can be," the Inspector 2nd Class seated across the table from him was saying. "You think they're backing you up, and they turn on you. Others can use them, too, and there you are, lost in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives." Martin nodded in agreement, which was always the wisest thing to do when addressed by a noncom.

He noticed how emotionless the inspector's voice was. Long training will have that effect. Even the droning voice on the loop seemed to have more conviction. "Ignorance is strength," it was saying in perfectly enunciated, utterly dead syllables. It never stopped. Party slogan followed party slogan.

Then it was time for the standard history lesson: "Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three layers of humanity, the High and the Low and the Classless. The first two work together, giving and receiving direction, exploiting and being exploited, consistent in their role, but the third is the most dangerous to the established order of any society, for they have no loyalty but to their own intellectual delusions. They may differ over ideas but all share one trait -- an antisocial addiction to reading, for which purpose they have used a variety of instruments through the ages, of which books, because of their seductive tactile and olfactory attraction, are the most insidious. In the beginning was the word, and it is the root of all evil, which flowered into books. The classless associate the solitary act of reading with a perverted fulfillment. They may at times be useful to the other, productive classes for limited technical purposes, but they tend to believe ideas have consequences and seek to develop their own, however subversive. This remains a mindset that must be crushed, for...."

Martin had stopped listening long ago, having heard it all before, and paying less attention each time. How strange, he thought, that the latest Breaking News should sound so antiquated, dated even before it was transmitted, while the silent words on the little slip of paper he'd hidden in the ventilator shaft of his cubicle still spoke to him. It was as if the tattered words were alive, the voice of an old friend from another century and different world:

To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations -- such is a pleasure beyond compare. ...