The Book is Dead:What has and will continue to change is venue, the way reading material is obtained

Dec 1, 2000

They say the book is dead. Journals and magazines, too. Newspapers? An archaic remnant of the past. In their stead, we have 97 cable channels and the World Wide Web. If the written word has any future at all, it will have to survive in cyberspace, an adjunct to the explosion of color and light that will provoke the world of the mind in the new century. People just don't read anymore. Let the hand-wringing begin.

Says who? Frankly, such pronouncements seem a tad premature. Yes, it's true, newspapers and journals are struggling, and the book business is taking it on the shins. Yet I'm not terribly concerned. The way I look at it, America has the usual quota of devotees who would read if they had to steal scraps of newspaper from trash cans in the catacombs, and about twice that number who would not read anything if the technology were developed to scroll pages directly into their brains. Too much trouble, too much time. The rest - the vast majority of the population - will read occasionally, for fun or information, even if it's only the box scores. Reading will not die.

What has and will continue to change is venue, the way we obtain our reading material. I am one of the small minority of determined readers; big barn bookstores were developed to serve us. (If anything, modern society is an improvement to bookophiles; we can go to stores in any respectable city and browse among tens of thousands of titles.) As a serious reader, I do find myself resistant to advancing technologies. It's hard to curl up next to the fire on a rainy day with a computer screen, almost as hard as lingering over favorite passages of a book recorded on tape. Give me a cloth-bound book when I crawl under the covers at night with a flashlight.

Still, I must admit the computer has opened a world of potentials to readers. I no longer have to go to the bookstore or the library to obtain a copy of Machiavelli. The Prince may be found on the Internet, along with most any other classic. For free. If I want, I can print this treasure in hard copy, get some glue and bind it myself for late-night perusal. True, the copy would lack the stately elegance of the goldleaf edition they're selling for $19.95, but we're talking reading here, not aesthetics.

We needn't be naive. The Internet is a blessing, but not an unmixed one. We can print anything. Total freedom. Total irresponsibility. Governments will have a great deal of difficulty controlling what we read on something as wide open as the Web, but we readers will have little protection from charlatans. I have encountered "original" Sherlock Holmes stories on the Net. Original they were; it was the first time I have encountered a black widow spider in The Hound of the Baskervilles. When we are free to print anything at all, we are free to print anything at all. Fake campaign literature, doctored business statistics, obnoxious lies about the Holocaust. The danger is not that reading will disappear, but that we will be unable to discern the truth in what we read. With a newspaper or a journal, there are means of measuring relative honesty.

Presumably, it's only the serious reader who shares in these concerns. As an academic, I want to know whether the historical documents I examine are the real thing. With the Internet, there is no policing to reassure me on this critical point. To the casual reader who needs information, one source is as good as another, clothbound or electronic. Issues of authenticity are beneath note, whatever the medium. Before the Internet, people were swallowing all manner of printed schlock, and continue to do so now. Think of the yellow journalism of a century ago. It's not whether people read, but what people read, that matters.

Readers have always had a disproportionate influence on public knowledge, simply because they have troubled to gain information. More than two centuries ago, American thought crystallized in ideals of revolution because a small coterie of readers informed the tavern-frequenting public how evil the British government had become. A century after that, a substantial number of Northerners reached the conclusion that slavery was a great evil, but this is no indication they had all read abolitionist tracts. Some folks read, and they talk to lots of folks who do not, influencing their opinions and their actions. The written word directly affects only a few, who translate it into palatable terms for the many.

Allow me to provide an example. If there is a book I know well, it's Walden, Henry David Thoreau's 19th century classic. The work has endured a curious history, as a document and as an icon of American culture. The image of Walden I have inherited more than 150 years after it was written is very different from the book Henry Thoreau sought to create.

Thoreau wrote Walden over a period of nine years, constructing the basic text out of his experiences while he lived two years in the woods a few miles from his home village. His original purpose in going to the woods was to live independently on as little money as possible while writing an elegy to his recently deceased brother. He worked outdoors a lot to make ends meet, and visited town every day or two. Lots of folks came to visit him as well.

Note what this summary does not say. Thoreau made no attempt to study nature while he lived at Walden, and was not very interested in the subject. Nor was he a philosopher hermit, shunning his neighbors. He was a fledgling writer, living cheaply away from the bustle of the village and the continuous racket of his parents' house.

Seven years after leaving the woods, Thoreau finished the seventh and final draft of his second book. As much as anything, Walden was addressed to his fellow villagers, an attempt to explain the impulse behind his experiences and to provoke new ways of thinking. His publisher brought it out in the summer of 1854, issuing a first edition of 1,000 copies. Thoreau was quietly satisfied with this, knowing in his heart the book was good, not worrying much about sales. The edition sold slowly but steadily, encouraging the publisher to bring out a second edition in 1862, the year Thoreau died. No one at that time recognized the book as a classic.

Books have a life of their own, often separate from their author's intentions. A book such as Walden is a curious case, as it is at least partially autobiographical. What is bequeathed to us is both the words on the page and the image of their author. How our understanding of both has shifted through the years.

In his own time, Thoreau was regarded as a pantheist, a satirist and a crank. One of Ralph Waldo Emerson's associates honestly believed Walden to be a satire, as he could not accept Thoreau's critique of capitalist progress seriously. Emerson himself played a major role in reinterpreting Thoreau's image for the public, painting him as a misanthropic hermit in a funeral elegy. By all rights, Thoreau and his book should have dwindled to quaint memory, an odd footnote in the history of transcendentalism.

What did happen was much the opposite. Thoreau and Walden began to grow in stature, reaching the status of American classic early in the 20th century. Times had changed. Progress was by then seen as a not unalloyed blessing, and Thoreau's eccentric criticisms had become the insights of genius. Too, America in the 1900s had come to appreciate natural history in a way Thoreau's contemporaries had not, adding new value to his observations.

Thoreau has continued to change with each generation. At midcentury, he became the political activist, the architect of a civil disobedience that inspired Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. His celebration of John Brown spoke directly to the civil rights movement. Then in the 1960s, America entered the Age of Ecology, and Thoreau became an ardent environmentalist. This, more or less, is the Thoreau I recognize, and the reason I urge Walden on class after class of environmental students.

America inherited Henry David Thoreau despite the perceptions of his contemporaries. As a cultural icon, he transcends the written page, becoming part the American weave. Lots of people have never read Walden, or were forced to read parts of it in high school and hated it. But everybody knows who Thoreau was: He was the cranky tree-hugger who went to live in the woods because he hated his neighbors. See how knowledge grows, independent of its sources.

What is correct? Is Thoreau the commonly perceived hermit, even if anybody attending to Walden knows this not to be true? Is he the image-making symbolic poet, the harsh social and economic critic, the task-making activist, the gentle naturalist? It all depends on what we believe, what we read and what we gather as received wisdom from those who read more carefully. To most people, Thoreau will remain more myth than reality. They're just not going to read that book.

There are now at least a dozen different editions of Walden on the market, to say nothing of Cliffs Notes. We can download Walden from a couple of Internet sources, and peruse a variety of summaries, most of them superficial. People wishing to pursue this American classic have an array of opportunities. As has always been, a fortunate few will curl up in bed with their computer monitor to read Walden from beginning to end, a few more will examine the summaries and most will garner a garbled understanding from the few who take the trouble to read. Thoreau will grow, and will grow more unrecognizable. This is what it is to be read.

No, I'm not much worried about reading. The venues are changing, and will continue to change, but the lure of the printed word will remain about the same: a vice to a few, a comfort to many, a mystery to most. Knowledge will continue to percolate through the population, useful knowledge, if not always recognizable or accurate. I suppose this is a historian's way of looking at things. Historians survived the invention of the printing press; we will survive the advent of the Internet as well. We will continue to read, to make others read, to tell people what we've read. Walden, and thousands of other works, will continue to live.

Newspapers may disappear, publishing houses will consolidate, but the written word holds as much magic as ever. Ask J. K. Rowling; millions of children and adults are living purely for the next installment of that author's Harry Potter series. The magic does not appeal to all, nor perhaps even to a majority, but it does attract a large, word-worshipping minority. We readers exercise a power out of proportion to whatever our numbers may be. We are the ultimate sources of societal images, the gatherers of information. In the era of the printed word, it is the readers who give shape to a culture's collective mythology. 

Robert Kuhn McGregor, an environmental historian at the University of Illinois at Springfield, is a regular contributor to the magazine.