Thoughts On The Death of Books, The Emptiness of Video Games, The End of the World, Etc.
One Christmas, a few years back, my grandmother gave my brother and I each an envelope containing a crisp twenty dollar bill. My brother opened his, and thanked her. She smiled and said, with a wag of her finger, directly to him, “Don’t spend it on video games!” My brother and I exchanged a quick glance. I received no such instructions. I can’t say exactly how I spent that money, but given my spending habits, I have a pretty good guess.
My grandmother’s remark was not surprising. Her technophobia was a long-standing cause for rolled eyes between my brother and I. Computers were the downfall of everything, as was the wane of fountain pens and letter writing. She thought it was wonderful that I was a writer, but I don’t think she ever quite got how the internet was involved. Her understanding of modern technology came from late night cable news, and she didn’t want to listen when we tried to do damage control on that front. Video games were never, ever okay.
My grandmother passed away in April, coming to the end of many years of poor health. I flew home, and accompanied my mom to what is now her house. As I poked around, processing old memories, I examined a piece of furniture I hadn’t looked at closely since I was a kid. A beautiful wooden desk, with a roll-up panel on the side. Within the panel are several narrow shelves, specifically designed to hold varying sizes of paper. Typewriter sheets, notecards, envelopes, that see-through paper I have no word for — you know, the stuff you put on top of other paper to protect the ink. All of it was high-quality, with embossed watermarks and cleanly printed addresses. I rubbed a sheet between my fingers. This was a world away from the flimsy stuff I shove thoughtlessly into printers. It was smooth, fibrous, satisfyingly heavy.
As I sat there, touching that paper, I thought about her anxiety over the great typewriter die-off, the quick disappearance of sending letters in the mail. I thought of how she would wax poetic about the look of invitations she’d received decades before, how she disapproved of me and my brother’s chicken-scratched notes, how thrilled she was with my partner’s stunningly precise penmanship. I looked again at the desk. It was a gorgeous piece of furniture, likely quite expensive, an investment made expressly for a type of communication she loved and watched die. A physical reminder that the world she understood was becoming obsolete.
Some time later, back in my own home, with gadgets and cables and air full of internet, I read a short story on Nautilus, a new science and culture webzine I’ve been regularly devouring. The story in question was “The Candle Burned,” a poignant, Asimov-ish tale of a future in which books are a thing of the past. The protagonist is an out-of-work literature professor, whose field of study has become too obscure for steady employment. The writing itself was lovely, but the message troubled me, particularly when I reached this part:
See, the crisis began at the end of the twentieth century. People had no time to read. First children had no time to read, then their kids really had no time to read, and so on, every generation worse than the one before. Interactive entertainment pushed out reading. Technology pushed out philology. Literature, history and geography couldn’t compete with cybernetics, quantum mechanics, and plasma physics. But literature was worst of all. It just fell by the wayside…In the twenty-first century electronic platforms took hold and publishers stopped printing paper books. Because people no longer read, the number of writers dwindled and eventually they went extinct. Writers stopped writing!…I understand that it was an inevitable process. Literature died because it didn’t fit into evolutionary progress. But it used to carry the wisdom of mankind to the next generation. It used to nourish souls and build spirits. It helped form the minds of children. Today, our children are raised emotionally and intellectually empty. They grow up soulless like machines.
Okay, “troubled” is too light a descriptor. I read that, and I got angry. Downright indignant. When my partner got home that night, I launched into a massive rant — pacing, ticking things off on my fingers, the whole nine yards. The idea of writers not writing was absurd. Where else would the “interactive entertainment” come from? AIs grabbing plot elements from databases, assembling stories like Mad Libs? An army of chimps hammering away at cast-off typewriters? Did the author really think that someone who would’ve otherwise been interested in the humanities would swing toward quantum mechanics just because there were no paper books around? Did he not know what a Kindle was for? And did he really think that classic literature was the only way to “nourish souls,” that physics and chemistry and writing code and all the rest of it don’t have a beauty that feeds others as much as stories do for some of us? He knew who Carl Sagan was, right?
I continued to stew over this, and thought about all the times in history when a change in methods of communication has convinced folks that the world is coming to a dismal end. I thought about how Plato railed against the idea of writing stuff down rather than memorizing it (the irony being that someone had to write that down for us to know about it). I thought about how the novel is a relatively new thing, when compared to the length of time that Homo sapiens have been around, and how in the mid-nineteenth century, only 10% of people on the entire planet were literate, and that you couldn’t reasonably argue that the only people in our history who had, y’know, thoughts and feelings were those who had read books. I mentioned “The Candle Burned” to my editor, without saying much on how I felt about it, and she responded with similar points, about how reading prose fiction was supposed to have made girls in the 1800s unmarriageable, and how comic books were publicly burned in the 1950s. I thought about all these things, and I felt a smug sort of satisfaction, knowing that this entire vein of hand-wringing is no different than worrying about the dangers of rock ‘n’ roll or bicycle face.
But then I thought again about that desk in my grandmother’s house, full of paper that never got used, and I realized all my clever arguments were missing the point. My grandmother loved writing letters. She loved paper, ink, fine pens, classic artwork, records. Without her permission, the world stopped caring about all that. They offered her metal and plastic in return, and it never mattered how much I tried to explain how useful that stuff was, because all she could see was the disappearance of something beautiful. And when I tried to explain that I was interested in video games, it was always in defense, never out of love. I talked in vague terms about how fun they were, and how, no, they didn’t make people shoot each other, and how, yes, girls like to play them, too. What she was worried about wasn’t the existence of games, I think. It was about the absence of things that she had valued. She was worried I’d grow up “soulless like machines.” I was always talking about how the lack of her things wasn’t a hindrance, not how my things had filled the gap.
The explanation I should have given is this: A game is like a book, but you can walk around in it, and in order to turn the page, you have to solve a puzzle. They’re like plays in which you have the leading role, and you never forget your lines. They’re like paintings that allow you to step through the frame. I’ve explored alien worlds with frosty stars and heavy planets hanging in the sky above me. I’ve run through ravaged cities, and been struck by both the magnitude of the destruction and the smaller tragedies under foot — a lost teddy bear, an undelivered letter. I’ve stood in magical forests, surrounded by tapestries of leaves pierced with gauzy beams of light. I’ve met characters that I love as much as any I’ve found in books or movies. I’ve faced problems as intricate as a game of chess. I’ve read books and articles on history and philosophy and ethics to help me better consider the themes I find in games, because yes, they really can be that complex. My friends and I have spent years debating the moral questions games present us with, and we show no signs of stopping. We write lengthy emails about the artwork, and the music, and the voice actors, and how best to refine our strategies. When we game, we are anything but “emotionally and intellectually empty.” I can’t game if I’m tired. I can’t game if I’m upset, or preoccupied. I can’t enter with anything but a sharp mind and an open heart.
But as much as I love games, they are not a replacement for anything else. I love books, too, and they feel so very different. Some stories belong to books, and only to books, just as some belong only to games. I don’t want books to go away. I read them all the time, on a little electronic screen. I wrote one, and I’d like to write more. But if there was a future in which they did go away, in which reading did indeed disappear alongside paper…it’s a sad thought, but I’d be okay with that. I’d be okay because I know that some other beautiful thing would take its place, just as something took the place of epic poetry and pageant wagons, just as something will replace games or virtual reality or holonovels or whatever else we come up with. Books might go away, in a future far from now, but we will still tell stories. It’s what we’ve always done, even before books were a thing, even before anybody ever thought about writing something down. Stories will always be there, and we will always be hungry for them. How we tell them isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that we keep seeking them out. Given what I know about our species, I don’t see how we could not.