NEW YORK—They say book culture is nearly dead. They say physical books are a quaint artifact, like doilies and public libraries and heirloom vegetables and print newspapers (cough).
Yet, when I got on the wrong train one night, the only other passenger was a benevolent, tall man. On his head was a magnificent crown of dreadlocks. As I began to be nervous about my mystery tour into the deep suburbs on the express that should have been a local, he calmed me.
He told me I was on the right train to get back. He showed me how to plug in my nearly dead phone to the hidden charger. Later he offered to switch seats with me so my charger cord did not have to string across the aisle.
In his hand was a book with the distinctive face of James Baldwin on the back. He was reading serious literature, “the Henry James of Harlem,” as The Guardian christened him.
When I got off the train, I thanked him for his kindness and told him I admired Ralph Ellison, too. He smiled. He did not correct me.
Sleeping with the Classics
And I reached my friend’s house, where I slept in a room with Tolstoy, Billy Collins, Barbara Kingsolver, and many more on the shelves around me.
Book culture is immortal.
The love of knowledge, the poet’s heart, the need to tell and hear a story, is always, always, part of being human. Neither games nor phones nor consumerism nor globalism can kill it. Genocide and slavery cannot kill it.
Some people are destined to be part of the tribe of book.
Journalists tend that way. Librarians, bookstore owners, you know who you are. Likely you never considered a career in finance. You never wanted to be one of the lords of the universe. You fill some smidgens of leisure with stories. Maybe some Yeats is engraved in your mind.
There are less obvious citizens of the land of literature. Rappers and rock stars and country musicians are part of the tribe. Do not forget: they are poets, just poets with microphones and banks of lights.
And some of those lords of the universe have a hidden love of story. One of my classmates became a Wall Street banker, but to this day reads actual serious literature, maybe James Baldwin and his doppelganger Ralph Ellison.
Now and then you hear people sneering at the liberal arts. Turn that sneer upside down! Those who are educated widely, or liberally, continue learning and thinking for life. They keep reading. They keep book culture alive and they are likely to keep civic culture and democracy alive. I’m not being grandiose. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson thought so, too.
Michael S. Roth wrote in “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” “Although they disagreed about many important political issues, John Adams and Jefferson saw eye to eye on the necessity of education as a foundation for maintaining freedom.”
“Wherever a general knowledge and sensibility have prevailed among the people,” Adams wrote, “arbitrary government and every kind of oppression have lessened and disappeared in proportion.”
When I roam around, I see general knowledge prevailing. People are reading and thinking. Somebody taught them how to read and they did not stop.
This morning a young man on the train, somberly dressed, with poetic curls and a serious face, was deep into an old paperback. It was by Charles Dickens, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” It was real literature, probably looked down on as clickbait or a time-waster in its day.