As a youngest growing up near the Oregon coast, my family frequently visited the beach town of Seaside, where my maternal grandparents and one aunt lived. My paternal grandparents had a cabin there also, to use when we wished. I loved the coast, though not so much the ocean itself, usually fearful of the power of the sea, but the amusement rides, the boardwalk (though actually cement) and the Times Theater for an occasional movie in Seaside, and now and then as a family to the drive-in theater in Gearhart, a couple of miles from Seaside.
One of the films that we saw as a family from the discomfort of our car was a 1960 version of the novel by H.G. Wells, “The Time Machine,” starring Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux and Sebastian Cabot. Rod Taylor played the time traveler, George, who at one point, far in the future, meets people in a paradisiacal land. The residents are beautiful but completely brain-washed and emotionless, who eat, sleep, grow fat, and are preyed upon by a tribe of monsters called Morlocks, who live underground.
What I recall so vividly watching the movie was the time traveler George going to a library of the people in the paradisiacal land and finding that all the books turn to dust when he touches them. Ignored and neglected, the books were useless matter to the supposedly advanced civilization that George was encountering. This was science fiction at its best it seemed to me as a seven year boy.
Some years ago, a priest-friend who at the time was president of a Catholic high school on the east coast was showing me the facility and when we went to the school library he quipped, “This is the library, but of course no one uses it.” He rather quickly opened and closed the library door. There was no one in there, not even a librarian.
This was certainly a wakeup call that many today simply do not read, or at least not from a library. I know there are exceptions to the perceived rule, but are we becoming a culture so motivated by the internet and smart phones, that such things as traditional libraries, even in schools, are going by the wayside?
When I was a student in Rome in the mid-1980s, it was very difficult to have access to the fine library at the university where I was studying. This was still well before the rise of the internet and the digital age, so access to books was crucial to our studies. However, the library where I studied had a librarian who was a religious Brother who had a reputation of hoarding the books in his charge so closely that it was very difficult to have access to the library stacks.
I recall one of our professors saying on the first day of class that, as the library was never open when students had time to use it, and that even if it were open, it was hard to use and nearly impossible to actually get a hold of a book for reading. The professor added that he would not be giving us any reading assignments that might require the use of the library, and would simply hand out photo-copied texts on occasion for us students.
Since being in Rome this year, some thirty years after studies here, I have learned that the good Brother has gone to his eternal reward, that the university library is now user-friendly and in fact frequented, hence there has been progress made in that respect. I do have the impression, though, that people in general do not use libraries like they used to, especially with the rise of the internet, search engines, e-books, etc. The options available today are not all bad, of course, nor are they all good.
At the same time, today the plethora of fine bookstores in Rome, Catholic and secular, is impressive. I have wondered who is buying all these books, but whenever I am in one of the stores, there is usually a line at the cash register. Sufficient sales must be occurring to keep the shops open, and the quality of Italian books, Catholic or secular, is noteworthy. The books are always well-printed and nicely bound, built to last many years. There are dozens of book publishers active in Italy. In addition to bookstores, there are numerous open-air book stands on Roman sidewalks, and the reasonable price of the often times fine books for sale is encouraging. I have a fondness for these open-air stalls.
I recall a book company in the United States that I used to purchase books from for our giftshop in New Mexico, until it became clear that the books were merely glued together and opening them in a serious way caused the spines to immediately break and pages of the books to come tumbling out of the covers. I stopped buying the otherwise excellent texts, because the books were so poorly manufactured. I cannot imagine this problem in Italian-made books. Like their production of shoes and clothing, Italians generally take pride in their craftsmanship.
Another U.S. Catholic company that produced very good books that were nicely bound, seemed to have packers that simply dumped the books in a box and mailed them. Protection from damage in travel did not seem to matter to the company, even after pleas on my part by telephone and letter. Always some of the books arrived in a damaged state and would have to be replaced, so I also stopped buying from that company.
Finally, a third Catholic company, also producers of quality books in the United States, always wrapped their books in newspaper, which almost guaranteed the books would arrive with ink smeared on the white edges of the books. Repeated pleas on my part finally found the company changing their packing methods.
All this I say to indicate my love of books, my hopes that they are not fading too quickly from the horizon, and that they will never be completely replaced by more modern forms of what is currently called “the book.”
As an aside, and to conclude these thoughts on books, two of my most recent acquisitions are the following titles (both in Italian): “Il Giardino Chiuso” (The Enclosed Garden), by a Carmelite friar, a “spirituality of the desert” book. The second: “Verso Una Gratuita’ Feconda” (Toward a Fruitful Gratitude), by the late Sister Minke de Vries, former superior of the Community of Grandchamp, in Switzerland, and friend of my monastery. Grandchamp is an ecumenical monastic community of women that follows the Rule of Taize, having a similar focus as Taize, with the ministry of prayer and hospitality in the context of a celibate, intentional and international community.
I am enjoying reading both books at this time.