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Would C.S. Lewis have embraced digital books if he had lived to see them? Or, would the Oxford and Cambridge scholar have deemed them an abomination?

Posing questions like this—about how prominent historical figures would have regarded technologies invented after they died—relies on conjecture. In most cases, one can only “assume” the likeliest answer.

A recent essay entitled “The Screen and the Book” sounds like something C.S. Lewis could have written about the encroachment of digital media on the domain formerly commanded by print.

The contention of the author is that:

Books are solid. This is at once a physical description and a metaphysical one, and it is on this metaphysical solidity that we ought to ground our loyalty to the book over and against the allure of the ever-changing screen.

When it comes to the notion of Lewis comparing heavily loaded bookshelves to a text laden hard drive, there is absolutely no question which he would prefer.

As Lewis declared in one essay, “an unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only.” (“On Stories”)

Lewis would without any doubt have despised the way ebooks have been displacing “real” books.

Lewis’ affection for modern and ancient codices enshrining the written word is legendary. In fact, one cannot possibly navigate the internet without repeatedly crashing into this single quotation: “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

One could fill volumes with Lewis’ comments about books. And that’s not simply because he was an astute literary critic. The simple truth is that C.S. Lewis loved books. A few less familiar quotations follow.

Some Bookish Thoughts Penned by C.S. Lewis

Lewis expressed his affection for devotional literature in a 1930 letter to Arthur Greeves.

All private reading has ceased, except for 20 minutes before bed (if alone) when I drink a cup of cocoa and try to wash the day off with MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul.

I shall soon have finished it and must look round for another book. Luckily the world is full of books of that general type: that is another of the beauties of coming, I won’t say, to religion but to an attempt at religion—one finds oneself on the main road with all humanity, and can compare notes with an endless succession of previous travellers. It is emphatically coming home: as Chaucer says “Returneth home from worldly vanitee.”

Books are vital to the preservation of what is good.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. (“On the Reading of Old Books”)

Lewis describes classical education’s focus on the ancients, and the natural affection readers had for poetic works they encountered on their own.

The great authors of the past wrote to entertain the leisure of their adult contemporaries, and a man who cared for literature needed no spur and expected no good conduct marks for sitting down to the food provided for him. Boys at school were taught to read Latin and Greek poetry by the birch, and discovered the English poets as accidentally and naturally as they now discover the local cinema.

Most of my own generation, and many, I hope, of yours, tumbled into literature in that fashion. . . . Shall we be thought immodest if we claim that most of the books we loved from the first were good books and our earliest loves are still unrepented? (“High Brows and Low Brows”)

In the following letter from 1953, Lewis praises existing volumes on the subject of prayer and explains his hope for Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

I invite your prayers about a work which I now have in hand. I am trying to write a book about private prayers for the use of the laity, especially for those who have been recently converted to the Christian faith and so far are without any sustained and regular habit of prayer.

I tackled the job because I saw many no doubt very beautiful books written on this subject of prayer for the religious but few which instruct tiros and those still babes (so to say) in the Faith. I find many difficulties nor do I definitely know whether God wishes me to complete this task or not.

In his essay “George Orwell,” Lewis relates his strong preference for Animal Farm over 1984. In addition to being prescient, he refers in a creative manner to his appetite for good books.

What puzzles me is the marked preference of the public for 1984 [over Animal Farm]. For it seems to me (apart from its magnificent, and fortunately detachable, Appendix on “Newspeak”) to be merely a flawed, interesting book; but the Farm is a work of genius which may well outlive the particular and (let us hope) temporary conditions that provoked it.

To begin with, it is very much the shorter of the two. This in itself would not, of course, show it to be the better. I am the last person to think so. . . .

My appetite is hearty and when I sit down to read I like a square meal. But in this instance the shorter book seems to do all that the longer one does; and more. The longer book does not justify its greater length. There is dead wood in it.

In 1928 Lewis mentioned a project that would have made fascinating reading if he had pursued it. He describes how an engaging volume can capture our attention in such a way that it leads us on a continuing quest of literary exploration.

My studies in the XVIth century—you will remember my idea of a book about Erasmus—have carried me much further back than I anticipated. Indeed it is the curse and the fascination of literary history that there are no real beginnings.

Take what point you will for the start of some new chapter in the mind and imaginations of man, and you will invariably find that it has always begun a bit earlier; or rather, it branches so imperceptibly out of something else that you are forced to go back to the something else. The only satisfactory opening for any study is the first chapter of Genesis.

Did Lewis Write the Following?

I’ll tell you the answer up front. No, he didn’t. But to my ear it sounds like it could easily have come from his lips.

In actuality, it is the closing statement of the essay referred to above. And, since it so clearly echoes the sentiments of C.S. Lewis, I deemed it fitting to close with it.

If you want to destroy a child’s love for learning, get rid of books. Serve him Plato from a PDF and E.B. White from an e-reader. Banish from his formative years any experience of objects that incarnate immaterial thought.

Remove the impractical, antiquated book in all its stubborn solidity, and encourage the child to dive into the flux wherein everything could be otherwise.

If we do this absolutely, if we ensure that not even the rumor of books reaches our rising generation, we will create a new man for the digital age: a puddle of disconnected thoughts pretending to have a head.

Slipping into Illiteracy

November 2, 2016 — 7 Comments

no-readingIs it worse to be illiterate, or simply to not take advantage of your ability to read? Mark Twain is errantly credited with this wise statement: “The person who does not read has no advantage over someone who cannot read.”*

I would take this a step further. It seems to me that illiteracy need not mean the inability to read. It can also be used to describe those who choose not to read.

And, in the United States at least, we’re on a downhill slide when it comes to how much time people spend reading each day. Reading that’s not related to their jobs or educational requirements.

The data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which examines in minutiae how citizens spend their time. The most recent American Time Use Survey reveals the disturbing trend.

reading-graphicThe descent begins at the precipice, where those who are seventy-five years old or older enjoy reading for an average one hour and forty-eight minutes each day. It slams to the ground for those fifteen to nineteen who devote only thirteen minutes to leisure reading.

Amazingly, that group is not the worst. Those who are twenty to twenty-four read nearly 8% less than they do, clocking in with a mere twelve minutes. The grim details are available here.

Obviously, we may assume that older people have more leisure time. A second consideration may be that their constitutions are not up to some more physically demanding activities. To minimize the effect of the “workday” influences, the numbers cited above come from weekends or holidays

But even combined, these factors cannot account for the radical differences we see. Younger people are simply not reading.

Too Little Reading

C.S. Lewis wrote a great deal about reading. He regarded it as one of the essential joys of life. He may not have been surprised by these statistics, but he would certainly have been aghast. I have written in the past about Lewis’ views on literacy in “Knowing Our ABCs.”

For Lewis and, I suspect, many readers of Mere Inkling, the desire was always to find more time for reading. In a 1919 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he cited the inescapable dangers of reading too little.

If only one had time to read a little more: we either get shallow & broad or narrow and deep.

Lewis was also familiar with demands of responsibilities that devour our time and leave little for leisure of any sort. In another letter to Greeves, written eleven years later, he describes this predicament. I share it here at length because it also offers an insight into the role of reading in nurturing his reawakening faith.

All private reading has ceased, except for 20 minutes before bed (if alone) when I drink a cup of cocoa and try to wash the day off with MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul. I shall soon have finished it and must look round for another book.

Luckily the world is full of books of that general type: that is another of the beauties of coming, I won’t say, to religion but to an attempt at religion—one finds oneself on the main road with all humanity, and can compare notes with an endless succession of previous travellers. It is emphatically coming home: as Chaucer says “Returneth home from worldly vanitee.”

Reading can clearly be good for the soul. And it has another benefit that even unbelievers celebrate. It breaks through the isolation that plagues human life. Technology, it appears, is not delivering on its promise to dispel loneliness.

Reading, in contrast, possesses for many that very power. And a quotation frequently misattributed to Lewis,** but clearly consistent with this beliefs, captures this truth.

We read to know that we are not alone.

_____

* Although Twain is commonly cited as the originator of this phrase, the earliest written parallel appears to be a 1910 publication in which the Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction wrote: “Who can see the barely perceptible line between the man who can not read at all and the man who does not read at all? The literate who can, but does not, read, and the illiterate who neither does nor can?”

** On the internet you will frequently find these words attributed to Lewis, and in a sense they do come from his lips. It comes from the television film Shadowlandswritten in 1985 by William Nicholson for BBC.

The image at the top of the page comes from this interesting video with a unique contemporary twist on reading:

Fit to Print?

June 16, 2015 — 4 Comments

amazonIt’s challenging enough to conduct painstaking research. But, only to have it become immediately obsolete by virtue of it’s own publication—that is simply too much.

Flying home from a whirlwind trip from the Pacific to the Atlantic, I came across an interesting analysis of how many sheets of paper would be required to print out the entire contents of the internet.

One hundred and thirty-six billion.

Didn’t sound like all that many when I read it. Why, that’s not even a fraction of the annual deficit here in the United States.

Still, it’s quite a few sheets of paper. As the article said, stacked on one another, the pile would tower 8,300 miles high. That sounds a bit more impressive.

The researchers determined eight million Amazonian trees would have to be sacrificed to provide sufficient pulp. Impressive. But then they turn about and make that very number far less remarkable by declaring that this total would constitute only 0.002% of the rainforest.

The Flaw in the Research

Sadly, as diligent and mathematical as the researchers were, there was a weakness in their model. You see, they did not factor in their own research. Immediately upon it’s publication, their numbers were obsolete.

In fact, because they meddled with the internet equilibrium, there were at least 36,000,000,002 pages. (And, although I am not a scientific researcher, I suspect there were even more.) And, despite my mediocre numerical skills, even I know that when I hit post with this column, the internet page counter will advance another digit.

More ominously, especially in light of our recent reflections about the dark web, is the following:

Also, it is thought the non-explicit web is only a mere 0.2% of the total internet, the rest encompassing the Dark Web. This would mean that printing the entire internet including the Dark web would use 2% of the rainforest.

This relates to the question that entered my mind when I read the original statistic. (And I was not even thinking about the garbage that oozes throughout the internet.)

A More Important Question

As entertaining as it might be to ponder how many pages of data exist on the web, there is a far more valuable question. How many pages of the material on the internet are worth printing out?

C.S. Lewis has a delightful passage about wasted newsprint in Surprised by Joy. Although he is specifically talking about how students should not squander time or attention on newspapers, his point extends beyond that to people of all ages, and to all media including the internet.

I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance.

Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.

If Lewis were alive today, I have no doubt he would share my opinion that most of what is written both on- and offline, is not worth printing.

Perhaps someone should undertake a study of how many trees would need to be cut to print everything worthy of being printed? If they did so, I am fairly confident we would need not worry about the future of the Amazonian rain forest.

pressIf the devil has used the printing press so effectively to advance his purposes, one can only imagine how easily the internet can be twisted to his purposes.

Whether or not you believe Satan is an actual (fallen angelic) person, we all recognize the web provides a ready conduit for unimaginable evil. Recent discussions of the traffic that occurs on the Dark Web is sobering. Actually, not “sobering,” but frightening.

While a small fraction of the data is innocent, the majority deals with criminal and dehumanizing material. Some investigators suggest more than half of the data transfers involve pedophilia.

I’ve been doing some personal research into parallels between the advent of the printing press and the rise of the internet. I’m approaching it from the perspective of how each has provided access to competing faith claims.

Martin Luther viewed the “recent” invention of Gutenberg’s press as divinely appointed to coincide with what would come to be known as the Reformation.

Roman Catholics also published treatises and pamphlets opposing the calls for institutional change within the church. The persuasiveness of arguments aside, one reason for their lack of success against the evangelical leaders was simple.

Rather than writing for the German people in their own tongue, they directed nearly all of their initial energies at writing for the elite, in Latin. While only a minority of sixteenth century Germans were literate, only a small percentage of these were able to read Latin.

During the first half century of the existence of movable type for the press, the majority of published titles were religious. Only later did popular and secular titles eclipse them.

However, they did. Many were wonderful. Scientific and literary knowledge blossomed.

Foremost among the good fruits disseminated by the press, we would have to include the works of the Inklings, especially C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. (Consecrated imaginations are capable of wondrous creations!)

Eventually, of course—given humanity’s imperfect nature—this neutral device was harnessed to baser purposes.

This would lead a nineteenth century minister to write an essay with the title of this column, “The Devil’s Printing Press.” Thomas Green described the dilemma vividly.

The first book printed in Europe had six hundred leaves, and it took nearly ten years to make it. Now books are written, printed, sold, read and forgotten in one-fourth the time. A single century ago, and a man well to do, thought himself fortunate if he had one book in this wild western world.

Today there are books in well kept rank upon almost every cottage shelf It is little wonder that the powers of evil should have invaded the province of the influence of the book shelf and bound up in attractive colors and insidious page the poison of wickedness and sin.

Later in his address, available to read at your leisure here, he contrasts the noble and corrupt purposes for which the press (or internet) might be used.

There are papers of every shape and for every use; daily, tri-daily and almost hourly, weekly and semi-weekly, monthly and quarterly, and filled with everything. You have no idea unless you have given it especial attention, of the magnitude and wondrous dimensions of the newspaper as a factor in civilization. You have little idea, unless you have studied it, of the influence, the formative power of this outwardly ephemeral agency upon human life.

You have little idea, unless you have sought it, of the labor, the enterprise, the energy, the talent, the outlay necessary to plan and execute this gigantic result. You have little conception of the influence of the printing press, as an enlightener, as a pioneer of civilization, as a promoter, a creator, a conservator of purity and virtue; and you have little idea of the magnitude of the devil’s work through this mighty agency, as in a thousand ways he uses it for pollution and ruin.

Green’s florid and dated verbiage may weaken the impact of his argument. Likewise the revivalist tones of his message. Still, as the existence of the dark web reminds us, even the good can be touched by corruption. Perhaps our vigilance can reduce this danger.

We will close now with another description by the author of the lurid material which preceded the pornography which abounds today. Would that our dulled sensitivities remained innocent enough to “blush” at explicit material, as he says.

But the devil has a channel by which he ruins life and character, in a specialty in the newspaper line that panders to the low and more bestial part of man’s being. Broadcast over the land there are sown every day almost countless thousands of papers filled with the corrupt, lascivious, the impure, gathered from all the fact and fancy that a filthy mind can contrive.

Facts that transpire often in the lowest slums of life are here placarded with all the embellishment of illustration and seductive coloring; language and recitals no man would read without a blush are hidden in its folds. It is a slimy, salacious mosaic of filth and wickedness, and yet go up and down the city streets and in every news-dealer’s window and on every corner stand they are spread out for inspection and sale.

_____

The woodcut illustration above comes from a book entitled The Dance of Death, and is the first representation of a printing press. The point being made was not to associate death with printing, but to reveal how death comes to all, unanticipated, regardless of who they are.

Irradiated Once Again

January 25, 2013 — 2 Comments

alfredhitchcock_bw_bI had to make a whirlwind trip to San Diego this weekend. Yes, I know . . . San Diego in January—I don’t expect any sympathy.

I don’t expect any empathy related to my destination, but I do know others who share my concern about the “full-body scanners” used at many terminals, such as my own SeaTac Airport.

Naturally, as an older retired military officer, I’m always a prime candidate for being directed to pass through the scanner. And that’s the part that I don’t mind. I want the Transportation Security Administration to be thorough. I enjoy the prospect of landing safely at the end of an uneventful flight. And, because of my desire to be protected from terrorists, I don’t mind having to submit to an additional search.

What I am concerned about is my health. I’m not greatly comforted by claims that these “extremely high frequency radio waves” emitted by millimeter wave scanners are not harmful. And the sister technology, “backscatter x-ray” doesn’t sound any healthier. I’m no scientist, but I recall having heard that many types of radiation are cumulative, and when you add traveling to medical and dental x-rays, cell phones, law enforcement radar guns, and the radon that permeated the military housing my wife and I shared for two years in Illinois . . . well, I am slightly concerned.

Health matters aside, the concern which elicits most criticism relates to the scanners as a violation of “privacy.” Truth is, the images they produce leave little to the imagination. However, there’s no possible way for that “faceless” person to actually be associated with you. Regulations, in fact, do not allow for the images to be preserved at all. So, while inspectors in a shielded room may make some passing ribald remark about the “naked” image on their screen, they have no idea what the person’s face even looks like. Thus, I’m not bothered at all by the so-called privacy concern.

Not that privacy is unimportant. It is crucial to life in a free society. We experience precious little privacy in our lives. C.S. Lewis talked about how our lives are enmeshed in a world of crowds and clamor. The following comes from The Four Loves.

Our imitation of God in this life—that is, our willed imitation as distinct from any of the likenesses which He has impressed upon our natures or states—must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions.

The Irony about Privacy in the Modern Age

This fact makes our willingness to reveal ourselves so openly in social media rather ironic. We need privacy—and the less we experience, the more valuable it becomes. Yet, we also desire to be known by others—for in some twisted way this has become synonymous in the modern world with “important.” Yes, the more hits my Facebook page has, the more likes my post receives, the more followers my blog has, the more important I am. And, the more important I am, the less lonely and forgotten I feel.

Loneliness feels terrible. Human beings were created to be in relationships. First with our Father in heaven. And then with our family, friends and neighbors. There is nothing quite so comforting as having someone who knows our imperfections and shortcomings and still loves us. God loves us that way. And, if we are fortunate, we find others willing to overlook our failings and still love us. We can’t find that kind of deep affection in shallow channels like the internet. When we cast wide the net in social media, so to speak, if we are fortunate we’ll catch a rare treasure in the form of a genuine relationship that enriches our life.

Back to the Status of the Invasive Scanners

Apparently, the complaints of those who feel violated by scanners producing a naked image of the travelers passing through them, have been heard. Apparently the TSA intends to replace them with “less invasive” models. In fact, the generic images the new machines produce have been likened to stick figures or cartoons. Presumably they’ll still be able to detect the foreign objects secreted in or on a criminal’s body.

In the meantime, we don’t have to worry about having our naked likeness published on the internet. Instead we’ll all look like cartoons or, perhaps, famous personages. That’s what inspired me to use the Alfred Hitchcock image above. I can visualize my next visit to the airport and almost overhear the hidden inspectors saying, “nothing to ogle here, just another Hitchcock passing through the scanner.”

Stained Glass Fiasco

November 14, 2011 — 4 Comments

It’s shocking, what you come across on the internet. You see many things that were never meant to be. I place this stained glass window of Mr. T in that category.

Yes, I recognize that he is a Christian, and his gold (24 carat) cross is prominently displayed. But still . . .

I was surfing in search of a good portrayal of Saint Martin of Tours. Not quite sure how the most distinctive member of the A-Team appeared in the list.

At least it provides an excellent reminder that a person should be prepared for the unexpected whenever they enter the worldwide web. (It’s not likened to a spider’s domain without reason.)

Addendum:

I realize that you are not comparing Mr. Tureaud to an arachnid, but you really should be much more careful in how you jump from thought to thought.