One of my favorite poets, Randall Jarrell, liked libraries more than most of us do or could: he sometimes implied he had spent his whole childhood in them, and wrote more than one poem about the juvenile divisions (today, "children's rooms" and "YA collections") of Nashville's monumental Carnegie Library, 103 years old this month.
Jarrell's most famous poem about a library, "A Girl in a Library," comes near to despair when he realizes that his undergraduates in North Carolina are not using libraries to read for pleasure: instead, they are sleeping, or cramming for exams. Well-loved in its time-- it was Lowell's favorite Jarrell poem, as of 1951-- its sometimes haughty tone and odd gender politics have ambivalent later responses. But its ground bass-- the fear that people younger than the author have ceased to read imaginative literature-- can still be heard in our time.

The latest iteration of that theme comes in today's Boston Globe, where we learn (behind the understandably enthusiastic Sox coverage) that the libraries in Massachusetts that have managed to increase patronage have done so by deemphasizing books: libraries that focus on coffee service, Internet connections, audiobooks, and teens who want to play Dance Dance Revolution (the game, not Cathy Park Hong's neat book of science fictional verse narrative) grow. Those that don't lose hours and funds, or even disappear. "This is not your grandmother's library," says the head of the Mass. Library Assn., Kimberly Lynn. "It's a zoo."
I like the idea of a library as a zoo, a place that welcomes young people rather than shushing them. The Jarrell of 1940 might have welcomed a more welcoming library; the Jarrell of 1950 and certainly the Jarrell of 1960 would have seen the trend-- rightly, and depressingly-- as another sign of our culture's movement away from literary sources, away from the codex book and the habit of communicating via words on a page, towards what he disaparagingly called "the Medium," meaning both the Mass Media (video, audio) and the tendency towards an accessible norm, towards the middle- and low-brow, that (in 1960) audiovisual entertainment implied.
The trend away from book-reading, toward a culture of audio and video, can be overstated, or minimized, but it's hard to deny. Sometimes it depresses me, too. And yet it's probably not as bad for the verbal arts, broadly defined, as Jarrell would have thought. Nor is it as bad for libraries. It's better to have people playing games in libraries (where they can get books if they want them) than playing them in youth centers or basements without many books: who knows what, once on a shelf, will catch the eye? It's different, and in many cases worse, to hear an audiobook than to read one silently-- different, and in many cases worse, to hear a poem you can't read than to turn to that poem on the printed page-- and yet...
Something like an audiobook format, where the poems were read aloud more often, more quickly, and to more people than ever read words on a page, was the way medieval readers encountered Chaucer, unless they happened to be scribes, and the way that many Victorians encountered Dickens (though he was already famous as a writer before he began his public readings). You are currently reading about poetry on a glowing screen, rather than reading a book, and our audio-visual-high tech culture makes it easier for you to find a poem when you want one, as long as your connection holds up.
The shift away from a codex, printed-book culture, if that is what librarians are seeing, could be very, very bad for novelists. But people who write poems should hardly despair. We might even see-- might even be seeing-- the rise of new kinds of poetry dependent on audio or visual sidelines.
That's not the kind I want to write, certainly, and it's not my favorite kind to read, but it's out there, and if it grows-- in tandem, perhaps, with what we are already used to calling performance poetry-- it should stoke demand for the existing printed books, some of them very good, about the non-printed, "audio" (that is, oral), art forms that use words.
You can argue that analogies among such forms (the same aspects evolve for the same reasons), if not indeed homologies (aspects which derive from the same historical source), link today's performance poets and tomorrow's audio-poets to Homer. In fact, John Miles Foley, whose last book I really liked, has been saying just that on his blog for years.
If tomorrow's libraries are more Homeric and Chaucerian than they are Miltonic or Eliotic, if they teach us to find long chains of linked short texts rather than single bound long texts, if they teach us to read and listen amid distractions rather than implying that reading ought to be isolated from all other human activities-- that wouldn't be bad at all, right? Right?

Originally Published: October 22nd, 2007

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. October 22, 2007

    Okay, this must be that moment where self-censorship gives way to license, and all fears of being a moldy fig melt away.
    1. I don’t let my son play on the computers at the library. He’s there to choose books.
    2. The interactive computer programs at places like the Norwalk Aquarium distract kids from the whole purpose of the exhibits: to look, really look, at what’s in front of them. Now when I take my kids to museums I have to steer them away from … more screens!
    3. Honestly, taxpayer money going toward video games?
    4. My husband was selling some cymbals on Craigslist and ended up talking to a musician just out of college who claimed it was hard to find people his age to jam with: his theory was that his generation was far more into video games than music, and fewer people were playing instruments and forming bands.
    5. While I think you’re right that poets will fare better than novelists in the age of screens, what about the underpinning of poetry: critical thinking? Chaucer and Homer are great, but they weren’t as important as Aristotle or Descartes or Newton or Kant in terms of spreading Enlightenment values. And it’s impossible to memorize, chant, or otherwise perform philosophy. It is the antithesis of entertainment.

  2. October 22, 2007

    1. Because you've brought him there already! Good for you.
    2. Poems are words on a page (already platform-independent and symbolic); fish aren't. I agree about museums, but that's one way in which they're distinct from libraries: museums are for the display of irreproducible objects (paintings, fish), libraries are for the dissemination and circulation of reproducible ones (texts, ideas).
    3. I don't think the libraries have to spend money on video games, or not much. They do have to buy the computers on which kids play them, though. And if they don't... their patronage numbers drop, and drop, and drop, and they don't get funded. Apparently.
    4. Maybe. Or maybe they're more likely to make music (electronica) that doesn't require live drums.
    5. Critical thinking is the underpinning of much else (e.g. informed judgment and wise political action), but is it the underpinning of poetry? of the enjoyment of poetry? I agree that the move away from print culture threatens critical thinking, though I'm not sure by how much-- but that's another argument.

  3. October 22, 2007
     Don Share

    I'm tempted to speculate that librarians, like poets, can often be their own worst enemies. Certainly, a trend these days in both libraries and bookstores is to elbow aside the nourishment of print for, literally, coffee and a donut. I feel about all this pretty much the way Ange does, though I also like Steve's point about analogies and homologies.
    On the subject of Ange's point number 5, I can't help but add something from one of the last things Richard Rorty wrote. It's from the new November issue of Poetry, and the full text will be available online here in about a week. Rorty wrote it when he was dying and in answer to his son, who had asked him whether philosophy had not provided him with consolation. Rorty, surprisingly, said not, because "neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation."
    Later in the essay he explains further:
    "I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts -- just as I would have if I had more close friends."

  4. October 23, 2007

    thanks for the Randall Jarrell

  5. October 23, 2007

    First of all, Bravo, Steve, for inserting all those links without a single Page Not Found. If I followed and read all of them, I'd 1) be distracted from your argument, 2) read for hours as I galumphed from text to text--every librarian's dream, 4) lose any argument as it collapsed under the weight of too many subjects and ideas, and 5) miss my plane. Instead of reading, I'm writing, which is what most young people do more of as a result of all this high tech gadgetry. They IM, text message, email, blog, “journal” on FaceBook, MySpace, etc. Have I forgotten any other high-tech written forms? It might not be grammatical, or composed of whole words, but it is writing and they are using it as a form of social interaction. Has there ever been another time in history or literary history when this occurred? The post in 19th century and Bloomsbury London only came twice a day. I predict that whoever invents a poetic form from all the messages passing through the cyber-ethers will be read.