Quote of The Week

“Democracy is the form of society devised and maintained by those who know that they don’t know everything”

Albert Camus


Universal Plagiarism

A college education these days contains many traps and challenges, not the least of which is to avoid (or effectively conceal) plagiarism, a campus crime almost as heinous as sexual harassment or a taste for 1940s Big Band music. Some students are required to sign long, impressive documents, written by lawyers who stole the wording from other lawyers, certifying that they understand the penalties for plagiarism. They may have no idea what it is, but they will sign anyway. Others will be severely lectured on the subject their professors. I know, because I’ve received and delivered a few such lectures myself.

Plagiarism is the theft of intellectual property, or more plainly to pass off someone else’s work as your own. Intellectual property is just stuff that people have made up or created. This essay is intellectual property, and could conceivably be plagiarized by some abysmally stupid student somewhere, who would get a well-deserved F.

It is dangerously easy to commit this particular sin, by borrowing a half-remembered idea or turn of phrase. We’ve all done it without knowing. All our culture is one big exercise in plagiarism. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all been thought and said before, and will be again.

Plagiarism is a very ancient art. Shakespeare stole most of his historical plots directly from the unreliable histories of Holinshed. Laurence Sterne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were both accused of plagiarism.

In modern times, plagiarism is not limited to lazy and dishonest students. Lazy and dishonest adults are equally guilty.. Almost every week we read another high-profile case from the world of academia or publishing. The distinguished historian Stephen E. Ambrose, and another historian Professor Doris Kearns have both been in the news recently, accused of lifting chunks of their works from previously published authors. Lord Archer, the disgraced British novelist and politician, is another distinguished example. Politicians borrow chunks of speeches from more intelligent men, artists copy photographers and each other, and musicians notoriously “borrow” certain melodic ideas when inspiration runs out. These rip-offs are routinely passed off as “tributes.” Movies are so obsessively self-referential that you get the feeling that nothing completely new has been attempted since “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. Real creativity is very rare.

In a sense, then, all culture is plagiarism. We can’t reinvent the world every day, but we can and do copy the good stuff from the past, and perhaps transform it in the process. So I don’t feel strongly about intellectual property as such. When great genius or large amounts of money are involved, I suppose it becomes important. But most creative work isn’t in that league and, on the whole, we should be mildly flattered when someone finds our work worth stealing. After all, the plagiarist gains nothing, and the act itself is rather pathetic, an admission of an empty mind. I can forgive a modest amount of plagiarism, especially if it’s well done. In the academic world, the whole thing is a bit of a game, hence the old saying that stealing from one source is plagiarism, and stealing from many is research

But I do have strong feelings about cheating partly because I never could get away with it when I was a student. The worldwide web has made plagiarism infinitely easier, and less detectable, and cheating by students has become an epidemic. If you look up plagiarism on the web you will find hundreds of articles and books condemning it, and even anti-plagiarism software. The cheaters cheat themselves out of an education, they cheat the honest students, and they make fools out of their teachers. I don’t like any of that.

The moral question is: should we discourage all cheating, or is it a useful skill? News media are always full of stories about cheating on an epic scale, mostly by politicians and businessmen. The notable fact about the guilty parties is that they are all very, very rich. My mother used to tell me that cheats never prosper: but they do. Cheating may be as essential to success in the modern world as computer literacy. By discouraging plagiarism and similar tricks, we may be condemning our students to a life of poverty and hard work.

If anyone has the answer to this educational conundrum, please let me know. But don’t send me any of those anti-plagiarism articles off the web, I’ve read them already. Where do you think this essay came from?

Unlucky Day

Friends have told me how lucky I am to have a regular audience for my whims, opinions, and prejudices in the form of a weekly essay on public radio. They are right, of course. Since the 1980s I have written a newspaper or radio feature of some kind at least once a week and (in my busier years) two or three times a week. Before that I was a college teacher for decades, which gave me a different but equally satisfying platform.

Having some kind of public voice is a pleasure and a privilege, but there’s always a catch, or several catches. The relentless pressure to come up with something new and entertaining every week is stimulating and exhausting in about equal proportions, although it becomes second nature after a while.

The really painful thing is uncertainty, which comes rarely but is very disturbing when it does. The only reason I am writing this is to avoid writing something else, namely a morning radio commentary for September 11.

What does anyone write about September 11? It can’t be ignored on the anniversary date, and yet everything has been said a million times already. We have read and heard all the different varieties of sadness, fear, outrage at the barbaric perpetrators, and more outrage (but not enough) at the idiotic politicians who used the event as an excuse to attack a nation that had nothing at all to do with the attack, setting off a series of catastrophic events in the Middle East that may not end in our lifetimes.

What can I possibly write about all this? My “opinion” is worthless. My feelings are irrelevant. But I must produce a commentary in the next day or two.

It’s time to go for a long walk.

The Incredible Journey

The old laptop we have been using in France was corrupted by anarchic Gallic computers on the local network, and went more or less permanently on strike. It is easy enough to buy a new computer in France, of course, but then we would have to cope with the keyboard which, in the European style, starts top left with AZE and ends bottom right with VBN. This deviation from the odd but familiar QWERTY arrangement is enough to drive a person mad. Personally, as a lifelong hunt-and-peck typist, I would much prefer keyboards to follow the alphabet from ABC to XYZ, so I would finally know where to find things and double my typing speed.

So, to keep a long and tedious story short, we delayed the purchase until we could make it during a visit home. Here we placed an order with an American manufacturer for an American laptop with a normal if not very logical keyboard, and waited.

The first surprise was an e-mail that said that our computer would be “built by July 16.” In these bad economic times I had assumed that they must have hundreds of unsold computers sitting in boxes waiting to be shipped. But this message about building it suggested something even worse: they can’t afford to keep any inventory at all, so they are making them one at a time when they get an order, like an old-fashioned craft workshop. Some highly trained, highly paid technician at corporate headquarters in California was assembling all the little bits and pieces – chips, drives and keys and so on – and gluing them together just for me. I felt both flattered and embarrassed, like a man who has ordered a bespoke suit but doesn’t quite feel that he deserves it.

Punctually on the appointed day came another e-mail saying that the building of our laptop had been completed and that it was being shipped via a big express service whose name you know. There was a tracking code with which we could follow its progress from California to our home in the Long Island suburbs. I can never resist these things, so I started to check the progress of the package. Surprise! It wasn’t coming from California at all, but from a place called Kushan, which turned out to be a city in South China. Next time I looked, a few hours later, it was in Shanghai, and the very same evening it had arrived in Anchorage Alaska, which seems to violate some fundamental laws of space and time. But we must assume that a bit of time travel is mere routine to these express delivery services.

By early next morning our frozen long-distance laptop had very sensibly migrated southwards, but overshot the mark and arrived in Newark New Jersey, where it languished for a while, presumably enjoying the scenery. A couple of days later it was delivered to our doorstep by a young man who, considering how far he had come, looked quite fresh and cheerful. When I slid the laptop out of its box it brought with it the chill of Alaska, and perhaps just the faintest whiff of Kushan soy sauce.

This is one of those moments when globalization becomes real, and not just an abstract word. To have our modest laptop built and shipped all the way from the far side of the planet, at the cost of who knows how much carbon debit, literally brought the global madness home. And it’s just one stage in a continuing process. As wages rise in Kushan we will find that our stuff is being made in Ethiopia or Somalia, or wherever labor is cheap and unemployment is high. But here’s the good news: eventually (and it’s already happening), the relentless logic of the market will bring all these jobs back home.

The Solitary Writer

We humans are a sociable species. That’s how we survive. We have the self-protective herd instinct that tells us that it is safer to conform, follow the leader, and go with the crowd. This behavior can be seen in its purest form in your local high school, where ‘fitting in’ is practically a religion.

What makes us different from bees or lemmings is that we can and do break away from the herd, and think our separate thoughts. We are bees with a perspective on the hive, which allows us to evolve and to create. It also gives us a headache.

The times when we are separated from the swarm, mentally or physically, are potentially creative moments when we can reflect on what (for want of a better phrase) I have to call the meaning of life. Even though Monty Python made an international joke out of it, the meaning of life is still a pretty important question.

Solitude used to be available in public places, like airports or trains, where we existed in a kind of crowded limbo, cut off from our friends and from the strangers all around us. But limbo has been abolished by scientific progress. “Public space” has taken on a new meaning, now that we’re all connected. It is an arena of beeps and ring tones and competing conversations yelled at full volume. Everyone is talking into thin air, or peering at a tiny screen while trying to press buttons the size of deer ticks. Nobody has the slightest desire to pause for reflection. That kind of solitude has become quite scary. We are never alone, unless the battery runs out.

Intimate couples split apart in public spaces. They turn their backs, each one absorbed in communication with someone else, somewhere else. The solitude of their togetherness is too much to endure. Or perhaps they are just following the prescription of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

“I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.”

Smartphones make it possible to escape the too-familiar other, but not the millions and billions of others. We can travel to the ends of the earth, but even the deserts and mountains are crowded. Resorts ironically offer “Relaxation and solitude,” but you and they know that thousands of others will be sharing the same solitary experience on their phones, all day and all night.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel A Hundred Years of Solitude is not really “about” solitude, except in so far as it follows the pointless and circular lives of the Buendia family, cut off from the wider world and progress. They are solitary in so far as they are ignorant, and their solitude is less a gift than a pathology of isolation.

Henry David Thoreau represents the more romantic, more intellectual view. In Walden he wrote:

“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert.”

Solitude remains a romantic, poetic notion for creative people. Fortunately, it is rarely put to the test. But on a trip abroad one summer I was unable to connect to the internet for a week, I had no telephone, and the cell phone failed. We had no TV or radio either. We were cut off from the continuous chatter of the outside world, and achieved a kind of solitude by default.

It was disturbing at first, but then a profound peace descended. This, I supposed, was the magic of solitude that everyone writes about, but almost nobody can find. I could almost feel my blood pressure going down, I slept better, I was relaxed – and I couldn’t write a word.

This may be what happens to people who hide away in isolated writers’ colonies, hoping that peace and quiet will bring the inspiration that everyday life had failed to bring. Thoreau wrote often and lyrically about solitude, but he was constantly involved with people, with nature, and with his own philosophy. He was no more solitary than I am, sitting alone in my study, apart from two cats, the birds outside the window, and the radio playing a harp concerto by a composer with a marvelous name – Karl Ditters Von Dittersdorf. Is this solitude? I think not.

Real solitude over a long period must be very much like Death Lite, which is why solitary confinement is one of our cruelest punishments. No wonder we love to dream about it, but never to practice it on ourselves.

The Bottomless Well of Essays

Teachers should be more careful. I might have become an artist or an astronaut, but an indulgent fourth grade teacher praised one of my essays, and essays became my fate. My diaries turned into collections of tiny essays, designed to fit the two-inch space allocated for each day, and I wrote overbaked sketches of anything and everything from a visit to the dentist to collecting tadpoles. Soon I became the most overpraised little writer in my school. Obviously, I wasn’t much good at anything else. Many years later I came upon the correct diagnosis of my situation in Kurt Vonnegut’s eccentric memoir Palm Sunday.

“Writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anyone can do it, but it takes time.”

Vonnegut was a creative genius, and knew it. But a non-fiction writer who keeps to regular deadlines cannot afford to wait for the brilliant inspiration that may never come. We must keep pumping, grab ideas straight out of the mess of reality, and try to make sense of life in the process of writing about it. A fiction writer is limited only by imagination. An essayist is trapped in the real world, which is nothing if not repetitive.

Ideas are like events: they keep coming back in different disguises. Georges Simenon, the extraordinarily prolific author of five hundred novels, as well as countless articles and reviews, wrote in his autobiographical Notebooks that every writer has a limited lifetime stock of ideas, and must eventually face the awful choice between silence and self-repetition.

History really does move in circles, as the Greeks believed. The same things keep on happening, and there are remarkably few surprises. There is always a war, an election, a summer heatwave or a winter deep freeze, a corruption scandal, a holiday season, an economic crisis, or a new invention that scientists predict will change the world. It takes a kind of perverse creativity to write something different about these cyclical themes every time they come around. At any given moment, certain ideas are “in the air”, and everyone is talking and writing about them: the addictive use of smart phones, Donald Trump, taxes, weddings, or interesting new diseases. A regular commentator must find something to say about them, and it is hard to avoid repeating what everyone else is saying and hearing in the media echo chamber. Failure to be original is always an option, and eventually it becomes inevitable.

It’s true that even the greatest writers and philosophers in history were limited by what they knew. Marx did not branch out into romantic stories or Virginia Woolf into economic theory. They stuck to their one big idea. But essays are not novels or treatises on political economy. Essays, as Montaigne demonstrated five hundred years ago, are about everything. An essayist who stays awake and alive can never, ever, run out of ideas. This is, in fact, the essayist’s job description. Fail in this simple task, and you’re fired.

A Good Long Read

The phrase “A good long read” was often spoken with nostalgia by my busy parents. It was something they dreamed about, but rarely achieved except around Christmastime and on summer vacations.

Most middle-class Victorian families had servants, and so everyone except the servants had a lot of time on their hands. Unlike us the home owners didn’t spend their days on domestic and garden chores. They read a lot, and they loved long books. Authors were happy to write them, not least because they were paid by the word or the page. Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy and the rest routinely published novels of eight or nine hundred pages or more, to say nothing of Monsieur Proust with his mind-numbing three thousand pages. In the modern age, with so many distractions and our much shorter attention spans, these huge volumes are a challenge. I recently finished Middlemarch by George Eliot (904 pages) and The Way we live Now by Anthony Trollope (844 pages) and I feel as though I ran two marathons, uphill all the way. They are both fine books, but the stories evolve at such a stately pace that it’s hard to remember the complicated plots and all the characters when the reading must be spread out over a period of weeks in the intervals between work and domestic chores. How wonderful it must have been to simply sit and read, knowing that dinner would be prepared, the carpets swept, and the children cared for without any effort on your part.

There have been some fine twentieth-century practitioners of the long, long novel – Tom Wolfe for example, and David Foster Wallace. You find their books abandoned in hotel lounges or discarded in yard sales and charity shops. You can see how someone might think such a book would be good for the long evenings. But how long could any evening be? Modern novelists are up against the scurrying realities of modern life when reading even a few pages is a victory against the odds.

Everyone loves a good story, but it needs to come to an end before we forget the plot. Sometimes one good story begets another, and another, and another, until we have that most satisfying of all fictional experiences known as a series. This form of the writer’s art is still alive and well. We have a fine backlog of multi-volume tales from writers as various as Anthony Powell, P.G. Wodehouse, John Updike, and Georges Simenon, to say nothing of the Harry Potter series that surprised everyone by getting millions of children addicted to reading something longer than a hundred and forty characters. A series is addictive without being overwhelming. It allows us to enter a whole world of strangers, who don’t remain strangers for long, and can be encountered again and again for a lifetime, with new discoveries to be made at every reading. Because we get to know the characters we can spread our reading over weeks or years without ever losing interest.

Once we have found a series of books we love it’s like discovering a second life. The characters and settings become as real as those in our own lives (perhaps more so), and they become a part of our lives. Every year I give myself the gift of the historical novels of Patrick O’Brian. If nothing disturbs my concentration I can just get through all seventeen books by the first day of January, then return to volume one. That’s what I call a good long read.

Parallel Lives

The television schedule in general is a monument to the failure of the public education system. But on a recent evening I was tempted by two old British movies – a James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me, and the 1995 film version of Pride and Prejudice – both unfortunately showing at the same time.

Obviously, for a person of my elevated tastes, there was no contest between an excellent BBC adaptation of one of the great English novels and a piece of meretricious, violent, sexist rubbish. I went straight to the James Bond channel.

This Bond movie has one of the best opening sequences of them all – a spectacular ski chase leading to a jump by our hero over a huge cliff to the theme of “Nobody Does it Better.” I was enjoying it so much that I felt guilty so, after about ten minutes I switched to the channel showing “Pride and Prejudice.” The action in Jane Austen’s stories is minimal. “Pride and Prejudice” opens with a couple of horsemen galloping across a field, but then it slows down. When I joined them the hero and heroine, Darcy and Elizabeth, had just seen one another for the first time. Darcy appeared at a dance like the villain in an old wild-west movie swaggering through the swinging doors of the saloon. Elizabeth fixed her eyes on him and I knew at once that he was destined to bite the dust in a hail of words. But I also had to worry about commander Bond who does tend to act in a very rash manner sometimes. I switched back and there he was, getting entangled with the lovely Russian spy Major Anya Amasova, otherwise known as Agent Triple X. I should have known.

James Bond is licensed to kill. This sets him apart from other superheroes such as The Terminator who commit random mayhem without a license of any kind, and probably without even taking a test. Bond apparently has a license for other things too. When I returned to “The Spy Who Loved Me” things were warming up with Major Amasova. But then I didn’t know what was happening to Mr. Darcy who had no license for anything except looking handsome and superior, and whom I had left in a very perilous situation. I switched back to Jane Austen.

This particular form of channel surfing was addictive. I kept flipping back and forth between 19th the century female romance and the 20th century male romance, alternately sipping my glass of sweet sherry and my martini (shaken, not stirred) – a horrible combination. It soon dawned on me that these were two movies with essentially the same plot. Bond, of course, is Darcy, and vice versa. Elizabeth Bennett, the argumentative lady, is Major Amasova, and the two families are represented by the two manipulative secret services – MI6 and the KGB.

Of course there is a world domination plot in the Bond book and not in the Jane Austen, but this is a trivial difference. World domination plots are two a penny these days. The real story is the love story and the different techniques used by the hero and heroine to reach their hearts desire. Bond uses ingenious gadgets and spectacular violence. Elizabeth Bennett achieves the same result by sheer cleverness, and by talking a lot.
These are two amusing fairy tales, which I thoroughly enjoyed in ten-minute segments throughout the evening. But there’s no doubt that the James Bond story is more realistic. Jane Austen’s fable depends on Darcy’s fantastical transformation into a warm and caring lover. But all Bond has to do is to seduce the beautiful Russian ice maiden Agent Triple X and to defeat the ambitions of the mad villain Stromberg. Beautiful spies are invariably seduced and world domination plots are invariably doomed to failure, in literature as in life. But some men never change.

Nice and Nasty

A lot of us were depressed by the news that the Walt Disney Company is planning to makeover the image of Mickey Mouse, to show his darker side and so increase his profitability. Now I’m not naïve. I kept mice as pets when I was a boy, and I know that even the most agreeable white mice have a dark side. But please, not Mickey. Soon kids will have no place to hide from the media’s obsession with violence and nastiness. What next? Will Public Television transform Big Bird into a vulture, to make him more interesting? Will Mrs. Tiggy Winkle the hedgehog be fitted out with poison spines for her next movie?

Nastiness sells, but I don’t understand why. Where’s the entertainment value in things that are ugly and cruel? It’s a curious commentary on human nature that a lot of people have always enjoyed being scared and revolted. This perverse taste for horror goes back much farther than Frankenstein. Pick just about any society from the ancient world, from the Mayans to the Romans, and you will find that depraved and violent myths were at the very heart of their cultures. Humans seem to be the only creatures that take conscious pleasure in the suffering of others. This is nothing to be proud of, or encourage in young children.

You might hope that as our society becomes kinder and gentler, which it has, and as science and rational thought make steady progress, which they have, we would naturally discard these sick hangovers from the dark ages. But here we are, almost two decades into the twenty-first century, absolutely awash with bizarre twaddle about zombies, vampires and werewolves. New movies and books about them appear all the time, including one called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is apparently ultra-violent and very nasty indeed, and even the civilized game of chess has been given a perverse twist by a British impresario who has competitors alternate four-minute rounds of chess with three-minute rounds of boxing. No, I didn’t make it up.

Two of the favorite adjectives in today’s entertainment world are “gritty” and “edgy.” It seems that, as our real lives become safer and more civilized, we need to escape backwards into a darker world, with the aid of edgy cartoons, thuggish chess games, thirsty vampires, restless zombies – and I won’t even mention video games, most of which are as macabre and nightmarish as anything the ancient Romans could devise.

What saves us from being overwhelmed by all this profitable nastiness is a sense of humor. Most of the stuff designed to horrify and frighten us is just plain silly – ludicrous plastic vampires, cheap electronic sound effects, and so on. There is, after all, some balance in our universe. The birth anniversary of Boris Karloff is also the birth anniversary of Harpo Marx, who never spoke in performances, let alone screamed, because he didn’t have to. All Harpo needed to prevail against the forces of darkness were his bemused expression, his little horn, boop boop, and of course his harp. When the gritty mice and wicked werewolves come calling, that’s all any of us need. One little boop, and the laughter blows them all away.

The Secret Life of Just About Everybody

It was only a matter of time before yet another version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty made it on to the big screen. I haven’t seen the movie with Ben Stiller, but I don’t need to. Walter Mitty has entered the realm of mythology, and his story is as universal as a love story. Everybody knows it, and everybody lives it.

Walter Mitty was an invention of the great humorist James Thurber. He first appeared in a short story in The New Yorker just one week after I was born. Can this be coincidence? Walter instantly became an American hero, a mild-mannered man apparently living a boring life in suburban Connecticut. But his real life was all in his daydreams. While doing the family shopping, Walter imagined that he was a famous surgeon, a fighter pilot, even a killer. His imaginary life was infinitely richer and more exciting than anything the suburbs had to offer.

There’s no mystery about why this short story became so popular, and has been reprinted and filmed so many times. Walter is all of us – apart from the tiny percentage of people who really do live exciting and important lives. What do you dream about when you are at the shopping mall? Probably you dream about being somebody else and somewhere else much more interesting.

It is sad but true that everyday life is dull most of the time, and we spend a lot of energy trying to escape from ordinariness. That’s why most dramas and soap operas focus on the extraordinary moments – the illnesses, accidents, love affairs, crimes and disasters that rarely come crashing in to disturb our real routines. It’s hard to make entertainment out of the quiet bits in between, when nothing much happens. As novelist, John Barth, commented: “Realty is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.”

So we are very good at planning escapes, and we need them. Some researchers have suggested that in fact a large proportion of all our mental activity is just that – an attempt to get away from reality. We may daydream about grand adventures, like Walter Mitty, or simply about travel to some exotic place, or a new house, or a better job. Some unlucky people find their escapes in in drugs, or madness.

Others leave reality behind by immersing themselves in hobbies, or the tribal comforts of sports or politics, special interest groups, or esoteric beliefs, or dreams of wealth and power. They’re all alternatives to everyday life, and it’s not necessary to do anything to enjoy them. In a former age people read books for an effortless escape, and a few antiquarians still do. Now Electronic escapes readily available on a billion screens. Just about everybody has a secret life. If you don’t have one, you can easily get one.

These secret lives tend to stay secret, because they are embarrassing. If you really want to be a NASCAR driver or a fashion model or a vampire, it’s probably best not to mention it to anybody. Fantasies, like vampires, tend to evaporate as soon as they are exposed to the cold light of day, and the more extreme fantasies may get you locked up. Yet how much more we would understand about other people if we knew the landscapes of their secret lives.

Of course I have a secret life too, but you may have to wait a while for the movie.

The Book Marathon of Summer

Summer reading is one of those traditional pleasures, like family fun, that exists largely in the realm of fantasy. You could say of summer reading what Mark Twain said about the weather: that everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. The decline of reading in general is well documented, and serious reading is in free fall. But the paradox is that as reading declines the number of books continues to expand relentlessly. The paradox is even more apparent at this time of year when the newspapers and magazines hit us with their “Summer Reading Supplements,” each one thicker and more daunting than the last. One, from a fairly well known New York newspaper, was thirty seven pages long and reviewed or recommended over a hundred books. How long do the editors think summer is?

If it makes you feel any better I can tell you that it is even worse in France. The summer book supplements are heavier, more intellectual, and much more daunting. A survey in March came up with the heretical finding that a substantial majority of French people actually believe that books are better than the Internet.

This raises an intriguing question: in what sense if any are books better than the Internet? I love books because I prefer to live in the past, but I know that computers and portable devices can deliver the same information and entertainment, usually faster and often cheaper. So why bother with a clumsy, old-fashioned technology that is four thousand years old and uses up an alarming number of our vanishing trees?

To answer this unwelcome question I did some research. This consisted of sitting in the room where I usually work, staring at the computer screen for a few minutes, and then revolving on my chair to look at the books on the walls.

The answer, when it came, was obvious. There is just one computer, and potentially it can bring me most of the knowledge in the world. That’s the thing, “potentially.” There are a few hundred books, and they are here already, in the room. Some I have read and some I haven’t, but they are here. And by being here as solid physical objects they remind me of all the things I don’t know, but should. Here, for example, is a thick book, by Alex Ross about twentieth century music called The Rest is Noise. bought many months ago and not yet read. It is almost seven hundred pages long. Would I pull up seven hundred pages of text on the computer to learn Mr. Ross’s opinions about twentieth century music? Not likely. The blank computer screen is totally forgiving, it lays no guilt on me for my laziness. But the book will sit there glaring at me until I read it. Likewise the huge Encyclopaedia Brittanica volumes in the library, in their black and gold bindings, are a constant reminder that I know almost nothing about anything. When it comes to ignorance your friendly, undemanding computer is a co-conspirator, an enabler.

It may be, let’s hope, that political chaos and anxiety will drive people back to the refuge of reading. Books are still the most economical and most engaging form of escapism. At the library the other day I had to wait in a long line to check out my books. This has never happened before, and it must surely be a good sign. If we ever lose our books we will lose our guilt about not reading books, and then what will become of us?