09 April 2010

Getting All Thoughty on You

We watch TV, I admit it, and we watch the CBS news, I admit that, and we have noticed that news makers brought in to the studio for interviews are sat in front of the same fake books on fake bookshelves.

The books themselves never move or change. (Come to think of it, neither do most of my own books.) The CBS books glow softly in shades of violet, green, gold and red. They set off  the sallow skin or disappearing hair of the guests quite effectively.

We may be the only viewers in the country who have noticed this. Does anyone else still watch network news every night of the week? Hey... we watch it on our Digital Video Recorder – no commercials. The half hour show is over in 20 minutes.

What backdrop will CBS use in future years? Some say books made of paper (remember paper?) now inhabit an historical realm strewn with buggy whips and ox carts, bronze swords, typewriters and telegraph keys. Soon enough, CBS will display rows of Kindles lined up in black and white, or pods of IPads showing off in full color; Nooks, Pocket Pros, a queue of Ques...

John Updike wrote in his sixth collection of essays, “Due Considerations,” “Books externalize our brains, and turn our homes into thinking bodies...

“My mother's college texts, I remember, sat untouched in a corner of our country bookcase, radiating the glories of Renaissance poetry and Greek drama while being slowly hollowed by silverfish. The bulk of my own college books are still with me, rarely consulted but always there... Such books... form an infinite resource of potential rereading, of new angles and insights on terrain where our footprints have all but vanished.”

From my parents I inherited many cartons of books. I kept the most unusual or interesting ones, judging them mostly by their covers. I have half a shelf in cracked red leather, other books in navy blue boards with gilt letters on their spines. From my father a collection of theater magazines from the 1930s. From my mother paperback volumes from The Britannica Home University, faded yellow stapled paperbacks dating from the 1920s.

On page four there is an Underwood & Underwood photo of a lawn tennis doubles match at Wimbledon, the players in white shirts and pants, audience in straw hats. On page 54, a photo depicts “A Quiet Game of Draughts” between two elderly, bearded gentlemen with the caption, “Edgar Allen Poe used to argue that checkers was an even more intellectual game than chess.”

I did not know that.

Updike writes, “Books hold our beams down; they act as counterweight to our fickle and flighty natures. In comparison, any electronic text-delivery device lacks substance. Further, speaking of obsolescence, it would be outdated in a year and within 15 as inoperable as my formerly cutting-edge Wang word-processor from the mid-Eighties... Without books, we might melt into the airwaves, and be just another set of blips.”

Updike wrote before the birth of Kindle and variously named I-Things. But like the poet William Butler Yeats he had a sure sense for the Second Coming:

“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed... and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity...” William Butler Yeats, 1919

Holding on to my own collection of physical books feels more and more like a rear-guard action, protecting civilized old things from the onslaught of the relentlessly new.

“The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...”

It reassures me to play three hundred year-old music on a wooden instrument invented in the 17th century. My particular cello was carved, shaped and fitted together in Italy during the toughest years of World War II. It’s a fine old thing, a mere baby at 70 years of age. These days there are fiberglass cellos available and purely electronic ones. Yet wood-and-glue versions have never been bettered. This gives me hope and comfort and a fair amount of joy.

My paper books and my wooden cello carry me across any chasm. I like to imagine ink-on-paper books and wooden instruments will continue forever, while at the same time, I hope and expect that books in electronic form and musical instruments made of ever more exotic materials will flourish alongside.


Updike’s essay is published in “Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism” by John Updike. Ballantine Books paperback $20. ISBN  034549900X.

From the publisher: “‘A drop of truth, of lived experience, glistens in each.’ This is how (the late) John Updike, one of the world's most acclaimed novelists, modestly described his nonfiction work, the brilliant and graceful essays and criticism he has written for more than five decades. ‘Due Considerations’ is his sixth collection, and perhaps the most moving, stylish, and personal...”

Quotations from “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). It is one of the most frequently anthologized poems.

1 comment:

paul in davis said...

Hey, SOMEONE'S gotta keep this enterprising venture in business. Might as well be network news stations.

I'm thinking of hiring them to put cookbooks in my kitchen, DIY manuals in my garage, landscaping books in my garden, physiology textbooks in the bathroom, and versions of "Goodnight Moon" in different languages in my bedroom.

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