Many of my readers have been demanding that Mr. Bacon have his own blog. If I were to allow him to do that I’d have few readers left, so instead I’ve allowed Mr. Bacon to write a guest post. Enjoy.
I time-traveled yesterday. The Washington, D.C., Metro system transported me to the National Mall and a scene right out of the 19th Century — a world filled with people who enjoy an antiquated source of amusement called a “book.”
Leave it to a bunch of librarians, in this case the U.S. Library of Congress, to organize something called the National Book Festival. This annual event features authors reading from and signing odd assortments of paper covered in ink and bound by glue.
I wanted to tell the thousands of attendees roaming from tent to tent that they need to join the 21st Century. If you want to be entertained, watch a video of a kitten stuck in a tissue box. If you want to learn something, your Twitter feed will tell you everything you need to know in 140 characters or less.
Not surprisingly, the authors of these “books” had a different perspective. Adam Goodheart is a New York Times journalist and author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening. It’s a New York Times bestseller. (Does no one else see the irony of the dead technology of newspapers tracking the sale of the dead technology of books?) In writing his book, Goodheart chose not to spend hours every day watching viral videos. Instead he spent his days in the Library of Congress Reading Room, perusing letters and journals written by 19th Century Americans. That experience obviously did something terrible to his brain, because he had this to say about the poetic style of writing he encountered:
These people read Byron, the King James Bible. Their brains hadn’t been infected by this pop-culture styrofoam. I don’t think the tweets of today will carry the same weight.
That’s the kind of perspective I’d expect from someone who needed 460 pages to tell a story. I was able to write this entire post in fewer than 1,000 words, Mr. Author Man.
If I can give Goodheart one prop, it’s his sharing of a very wise quote by some dead author named Arthur Koestler. I like the quote both because it’s true and because it’s less than 140 characters:
To want to meet an author because you like his books is as ridiculous as wanting to meet the goose because you like pate de foie gras.
Like Goodheart, Joel Achenbach is confused. He also writes books and is a newspaper reporter for The Washington Post. But he should know better, because he’s been blogging since 1999. Anyhow, here’s how old-fashioned Achenbach is. When he wanted to learn more about deep-sea oil drilling while writing the book A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher, he said he actually went to the library (!) and checked out a 1,000 page book (!) on the subject. He’d start each day with a cup of coffee and the book, apparently forgetting that we’re supposed to start our day by catching up with our Facebook feed.
While researching the book, Achenbach also read thousands of emails written by government officials and scientists. I’ll give him credit for at least reading written works produced in digital form, although I bet he printed them out.
Achenbach made note of the fact that the organizers had him speaking in a large tent, and compared it to another American tradition also found mostly in the past, a revival. Then he showed his true colors. “Let me tell you about newspapers!” he called out in his best preacher voice. “Books!” The audience ate it up, but of course they suffer from the same disease he does, printophilia.
At first I took comfort in the type of attendees I saw there. Thinning gray hair. Crumpled spines. Liver spots. Heck, a lot of these folks probably remember 1861. But then I saw others. Thirty-somethings. Twenty-somethings. Young parents with children. And not one kid was screaming bloody murder, demanding to be returned immediately to his X-Box. Wait, what?
Some parts of our culture never truly die. We’ve had automobiles for a century now, but somebody, somewhere, still manufactures buggy whips. But do you own a buggy whip? I sure don’t. I want to live in a world free of any narrative that takes me longer to read than it does for my Netflix stream to buffer. But I’ll never see that world if we produce a new generation of “readers.”
Americans love to blame Washington, D.C., for every national ailment. And they’re almost always right to do so. But I learned during my time travel today that the real obstacle to our ideal future is not the collection of crooks we find in the U.S. Capitol, but a more shadowy and sinister cabal in the building across the street — the Library of Congress.
Heck with the “tea party.” We need a “book party.” When this eureka moment struck me, I approached a young woman wearing a blue “National Book Festival” T-shirt. She was attractive, so much so that she should have been home sleeping off last night’s clubbing, not volunteering at an information tent and handing out free (!) water. I told her we need a revolution. We need a “book party.” She smiled and said, “But we already have one. This is it!”