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The Rise and Fall of Books

Tuesday 14 March 2017 at 5:00 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 16, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            One old Peanuts’ comic strip begins with Charlie Brown telling Linus, “I think I can understand your fear of libraries, Linus. ‘Library Fever’ is similar to other mental disturbances . . . You fear the library rooms because they are strange to you . . . You are out of place . . . All of us have certain areas in which we feel out of place.”

            As a person who has always passionately loved books and thought libraries were great places to spend time, I find the fear of libraries difficult to understand. Actually the fear of libraries and the fear of books are two different things, as I suspect Linus was an excellent reader. The fear of books is called “bibliophobia,” but there is no “phobia word” for library fear.

            However, it does exist, and librarians call it “library anxiety.” The term was first coined in 1986 by Constance Melon, a professor of library science, and is a state of mind that all librarians recognize in many students coming into a bibliotheca. “Library anxiety” is felt most keenly when students have to write research papers. They fear everything, from knowing how to use the card catalogue (still the common method in the 1980’s) to feeling out of place between towers of books looming above them on both sides.

            As a bibliophile, I not only love books, but also all places were books are found, -- not only libraries, but also bookstores, especially used books bookstores, and amazon.com, where you can buy a used book for 2 cents plus $3.99 postage. If second-hand book purchases weren’t possible, I would not be able to afford my reading habits. The great bargains I get on Amazon are due to the fact I love the kind of books most people aren’t interested in. I can get a volume of Dickens for 3 cents plus postage, and a biography of Turgenev for 0 cents plus postage. My used Turgenev book still has a library card in it from its previous life, showing that nobody had ever checked it out.

            If you think my book choices are weird, you need to realize that as a child I used to read the dictionary, one of three books my parents had in my home, from cover to cover, over and over again, until my uncle gave us my cousins’ set of old encyclopedias (when they got new ones). It took me longer to read through a set of encyclopedias. I still have those encyclopedias and know some pages by heart.

            It’s funny, in high school, I always felt very uncomfortable in the gym. This is a place where I made a fool of myself, displaying my total lack of coordination, spastic double dribbling and tripping over my two left feet. Fortunately, there were two places which were home-sweet-home to me, -- the band hall and the library. If I weren’t in class, you could find me in the library, even during the noon hour. The problem was I liked to read what I liked to read, and not what the teachers assigned me to read.

            Well, I’m just thankful for that German inventor, Johannes Guttenberg, whom most people believe invented the printing press in 1440 (there were probably others who discovered the printing method before or about the same time as Guttenberg, but he’s still my hero). Once this invention happened, the proliferation of books was astonishing. In 60 years, by 1500, printing presses were operating all over Europe and have been ever since.

            Will they continue? In this strange new world of electronic devices? Well, a kindle is still a book, but in some cases, DVD’s are taking the place of books in classrooms. When I retired from teaching college English in 1987, we were offering our first course in Cinema (which could be substituted for English literature courses). I don’t know how that has played out since then, but it seemed rather “unfriendly” to me at the time. Libraries are already being called “media centers” on campuses everywhere, and most classrooms are being equipped with all the “necessary” electronic bells and whistles. Cursive writing is no longer being taught in many elementary schools, as writing is done strictly on a keyboard.

            Oh woe is me! In another two decades, reading and writing will be unknown arts to the human race. But without reading and writing, how are they going to produce scripts for movies, DVD’s, and television? Ah yes, robots! But who will be able to read and write enough to program the robots? They’ll just re-program the same movies over and over. What a nightmare that’s going to be! Oh well, in two decades, I will be 102 years old and probably will care less!


 Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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