Today, I had an appointment at the VA hospital in Washington, D.C.. I travel up there every few months for one appointment or another. It’s a busy place this hospital. From the moment I enter the doors and show my ID to security, it is a flurry of war stories, wheelchairs and an echo reminiscent of a Smithsonian museum.
Since I generally arrive well before my appointments, I wander into the basement and meander through the cantina. There’s nothing I need, but I feel compelled to ensure there’s nothing that strikes me as a necessity. The first time I wandered in there was quite by accident. During my first visit to the hospital I was looking for the cafe, but I didn’t go down the hallway far enough and ended up in the cantina. I can tell you what they don’t have there, though: Red Bull. Since I quit drinking years ago, my caffeine intake skyrocketed and Red Bull has become my drink of choice. Now, whenever I go to the VA hospital, I double check to make sure they haven’t changed their offering of energy drinks.
As of today, there was still no bull for me.
Walking out of the cantina, I decided to head back upstairs and grab a coffee from the vendor by the entrance. It’s not the best coffee, but it’s still caffeinated. As I passed the elevators, I glance right and see the ATM that’s normally there, but next to it was a library cart holding a handful of “free” books. I’ve been to these carts before in other random places, and their offerings are generally not appealing to me. You usually have a large sum of romance novels, tattered and used by countless readers looking to satisfy, even temporarily, some absence of intimate fire in their lives. There weren’t any of those on this cart.
Being D.C., there were a few books relating to politics. I don’t remember the names of the books, but the covers had pictures of random people, whose messages were simply that someone is an idiot, someone is wrong, or the ever-popular “I am always right” message. Next to those there was a book that amused me. It was a book titled “The World Since Darwin”, and it looked as old as the theory of evolution itself. It didn’t look as well read as it’s romantic neighbors, but it was definitely used.
The next book that caught my attention is the reason for this post, sort of. It is a book titled “The Discarded Image”, written by CS Lewis. It perked my eyebrow because I have a number of CS Lewis’ writing, print and digital, and I had never seen this title before. It is, apparently, an introduction to Medieval and Renaissance literature, as its subtitle indicates. Generally considered to be a Christian author, and I, as a Christian scholar in seminary, was excited to see something outside of the realm of theology, and by an author that I have grown to like.
With my swanky cup of coffee in hand, I grab the book and head to the waiting room to check in for my appointment. I settle into an empty seat in an already full waiting room. I choke down a swig o’ joe and begin reading.
After about fifteen minutes, my neighbors in the waiting room have changed a few times and I get the feeling that I’m being stared at. Without fanfare, my eyes dart around the room quickly to see if eye contact is made with anyone. But nay, there’s no one looking at me. In fact, there’s no one looking around at all. I estimate that there are about 11 people in this small little room, and most of us are older. I include myself in that since I just past over 40 years of toil on this planet, but everyone around me I would consider my elder…except for the boy to my right sitting with his wheelchair-bound grandpa. He’s about 11, and he and I are the youngest two people in the waiting room. What strikes me, though, is that everyone in there is staring at a phone or electronic device of some kind. Hypnotized.
Except me. I’m reading a book first published in 1964. The current edition I gingerly thumb through was printed in 1995. I imagine looking at the room from above, zooming out to capture everyone. I am amused that I would be Waldo if a book of that kind were made for this situation. Even the receptionist is on her phone. Strange.
In The Discarded Image, Lewis is discussing knowledge and ritual in the first chapter, and makes a note that knowledge in the Middle Ages was obtained largely through books and manuscripts. I learned previously that books were rare during that time, being mainly institutional possessions, though individuals who owned books spent good money on them. Books today have become so common place, libraries are no longer as rare as they were in the Middle Ages, which is a great thing. I love that knowledge is freely available to the masses with something as simple as a library card. In this day of technology’s whirlwind advancement, one does not even need to leave their home to get books. Most libraries have digital versions of their offerings available in an app or through a website. That’s fantastic. In fact, the books I check out are a mix of the two: I check out physical books every couple weeks, and digitally as often as I like.
And that’s where I get hung up.
As much as I read online, I can never completely let go of actual, printed books. It’s an experience, wrapped up in the feel of the pages and the smell of antiquity. I’ve a habit of moving a hand gently over the page I’m not reading, while focusing on the page I am. I don’t do that when I’m reading on my tablet or phone. I retain the experience the story, yes, but it’s not the same as reading an actual book.
It may or may not happen in my lifetime, but I believe there will be a day when books become as rare in the future as they were in the Middle Ages. Expensive and owned by only the elite few. To the masses remain the digital, while the physical become a rarity. It is both frightening and exciting.
Exciting that the more and more people who gain access to the internet, the more they have access to the latest knowledge, thoughts, and ideas. Exciting because the more common knowledge is, the more freely the people of the world can analyze problems, think of innovative solutions to those problems, and decide for themselves what to think and what to say.
Frightening because there’s a chance of manipulation of facts and knowledge if everything were accessible only thru the internet. I mean, once a book is published, it’s published. One cannot easily travel the world and make alterations to every printed copy of whatever title for whatever nefarious reason. Sure, as scientists and people much smarter than me discover new things, which may unseat a scientifically accepted theory, updating that information is crucial for everyone. But the possibility remains. A coup on the truth.
Is the idea a brackish combination of the utopian and the dystopian? Probably.
Am I paranoid about it? Nope.
My name echos in the shallow connection between my ear and my brain, when I look up to see the doctor staring at me. I smile and notice that the entire room is looking at me, having broken their respective trances with my unresponsiveness.
How many times did he call my name?
Doesn’t matter. I didn’t get much reading done.