In the 1960 movie, The Time Machine, the lead character, played by Rod Taylor, travels forward in time to the year 802,701 via a machine he’s invented. Once there, he discovers a world literally divided in half. Above ground live a passive, unthinking people called the Eloi. Below ground live their masters, the hulking Morlocks. Every once in a while, some Morlocks will emerge from a hole in the ground at night and grab some Elois for dinner.
Mystified, the hero at one point asks an Eloi if they have any books. He wants to see if he can find out how this frightening evolution occurred.
“Books? We have books,” the Eloi replies somnolently. The hero is led to a futuristic-looking library where, yes, there are books, rows and rows of them. He takes one from the shelf, and it turns to dust. He sweeps his hand across the long row of books, and they disappear in a cloud.
I live in New Orleans. There are three well-known universities here, and I go to each of their libraries. Increasingly, though, as I walk into these libraries, I have the sinking feeling that I’m walking into mausoleums. I walk into the stacks and down the aisles, and the books on the shelves seem like relics. Or like tombstones, each one telling me tersely about its deceased occupier. I have never looked at books that way, and this is disconcerting.
I have always felt like Henry Miller felt about books. He wrote, “They were alive and they spoke to me!”
I’m not alone in my generation as being someone whose life was not only molded by time spent in libraries, but saved, as well. The books were alive and they did speak to me, often when actual people would not. Here there were accepting voices who welcomed me into their worlds, which were often strange and remote, sad and harrowing, thrilling and funny, and, yes, sometimes dull. But always accepting, without reservation.
Are books on electronic devices books? No. A book is something between two covers with printed words inside that can be held in your hands.
I’m not going to live long enough, but what I once thought was only a cinematic dream may come to pass. One day, perhaps not terribly far from now, someone will walk into one of those libraries, reach for a book, and feel it turn to dust.