Saint Gutenberg, Pray For Us



Saint Gutenberg, Pray For Us

by Michael Coughlin

Many months ago (is it years already?), I was paging through a copy of  The Wall Street Journal  and happened upon a letter to the editor extolling used book stores.  Anthony Mirabile, the writer, noted how he reveled in walking down the sometimes crowded isles, smelling the old books, and holding the volumes in his welcoming hands.  But as he relaxed in the book sanctuary a disturbing idea overwhelmed him: the progress in human culture represented by these books is threatened by the ubiquitous internet.

He put me to thinking and I began to share the same fear he expressed.  What will become of literature, of political opinion, of religious discussion if the internet gets a total stranglehold on what we read?  Already we see how political machines control internet content.  But this control can extend backwards as well as forwards if and when all literature is digitized.  For example, Mark Twain’s books have been criticized for words such as “Nigger Joe.”  For his time, the words weren’t meant as an attack, but merely as part of the current vocabulary.  But of late some of the PC crowd have gotten hold of Mark Twain and wrung his books of unacceptable words.  They have “sanitized” Twain, made him acceptable to the fragile minds who inhabit the university.  In the process they have stripped a writer of his true voice and have gutted the way authors and readers got their literature ages ago.  In short, they have robbed us of our heritage as human beings.

If we strip libraries of their treasures, board up book stores and silence the independent press, we have a formula for total thought control–and it could all be made possible by the internet.  Obviously, the internet can open up ideas to speed around the globe, can make learning accessible to the poorest in the most remote regions of the planet, and can encourage the flowering of discussion and debate.  But lurking behind this potential is the equally fearful reality that Big Brother, in his many forms, can use the medium to clamp down on free expression.

In the old Soviet Union there was underground publishing known as “Samisdat.”  People involved in it risked their lives and their freedom doing such publishing, but this unapproved material dramatically changed Soviet life  before the ugly system crumbled. Perhaps, next, it will be our turn to rely on small, independent publishers working in the shadows to carry the tradition of open debate and discussion forward for future generations. I hope it doesn’t ever come to that but there are darkening clouds on the horizon warning us not to ignore the danger.  

The printed book, which “played such a pivotal role in lifting humankind out of the enervating slough of ignorance,” is endangered.   

“The prophets of the future don’t want us to explore the dark side of their techno-revolution.,” but now is a good time to “bring a bit of balance to the razzle-dazzle puffery abroad in the land.”  .    Ancient texts, preserved on paper and bound into protective covers are more difficult to find and to eliminate,.  The same is true for Samisdat publications.   As Anthony Mirabile wrote, “Reaching for a book is a symbolic and literal grasp at freedom, untethered to the whim of some cyber-gatekeeper.. . . It is opening one’s mind to the wide field of ideas and information without the risk that one’s mind will be shut off at the flick of a switch.”

Something to consider.

Saint Gutenberg, Pray For Us, which I published, in part, for my contribution to the American Amateur Press Association’s monthly mailing “bundle,”  is my effort to raise the storm flags.

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