— Brenna Bychowski, via John Overholt on Twitter
An interesting trio of books for Random House to be advertising in the April 24, 1944 issue of The New Republic — in the margin, by the way, of an extremely negative review of two C. S. Lewis books, written by Alistair Cooke, later of Masterpiece Theater fame. Also, I plan to find a use for the phrase “Tolstoyan it flows with laughter, tears and scotch.”
A new journalistic recipe is afoot: find once ubiquitous technology that is on the wane and write about its quirky history. The latest exhibit at the LA Review of Books: the phone booth.
Ah, the phone booth, haven of bacterial infestation, coin-operated dysfunctionality, and cinematic obsession. We’ll miss you.
Of course the more interesting question is not to treat media like cats (so cute, so sad), but to ask why it is that we need to rehearse these disappearances. Why are we so drawn to the mourning work of missing media?
We have gone long enough without raising the question of whether reading makes you a better person. The short answer to that question is No. It doesn’t. And the long answer doesn’t differ too dramatically from the short one….
Responding to the claim that not just reading but “high culture” in general is morally improving, Terry Eagleton points out that, during World War II, “many people were indeed deep in high culture, but … this had not prevented some of them from engaging in such activities as superintending the murder of Jews in central Europe.” If reading really was supposed to “make you a better person,” then “when the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps … to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.”
There’s simply nothing about reading, or listening to Mozart sonatas, or viewing paintings by Raphael, that necessarily transforms or even improves someone’s character. As the eighteenth-century scientist G. C. Lichtenberg once wrote, “A book is like a mirror: if an ass looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.” Nevertheless, I am going to argue, from time to time throughout the course of this book, that if you really want to become a better person, there are ways in which reading can help. But the degree to which that happens will depend not just on what you read … but also why and how. So consider yourself either warned or promised, according to your feelings about moralistic exhortation.
If you read advertisements for books in eighteenth-century journals, you will be struck by the emphasis on the primary material of literature: ‘Printed on the best-quality paper from Angouleme.’ That line of salesmanship would be unthinkable today, when readers rarely notice the quality of the paper in books. In the eighteenth century they often found splotches made by drops from a poorly held deckle or bits of petticoat that had not been properly pulped. Remarks about paper turn up so often in the letters of booksellers—and even a few readers, though the STN [Société typographique de Neuchatel] rarely heard from individual consumers—that I think a peculiar paper consciousness existed in early modern Europe. It must have died out with the advent of machine- made paper from pulped wood in the nineteenth century. But in earlier times people looked at the material substratum of books, not merely at their verbal message. Readers discussed the degrees of whiteness, the texture, and the elasticity of paper. They employed a rich esthetic vocabulary to describe its qualities, much as they do for wine today.
I just wish that we could talk about books as if they are for use, not as symbols of enduring knowledge that must be preserved against the ravages of digital barbarians or as emblems of obdurate and blinkered resistance to inevitable change.