Wednesday, September 24, 2014

History Repeats Itself: Fear of Books

"I tell you, sir, that the end of the world has come.  No one has ever beheld such outbreaks among the students!  It is the accursed inventions of this century that are ruining everything,--artilleries, bombards, and above all, that other German pest.  No more manuscripts, no more books!  Printing will kill bookselling.  It is the end of the world that is drawing nigh."

This is a quotation of a quotation.  It is from Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame, but taken from Stephen Apkon's book The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens.  Apkon's adds, "This was fear not just of the strength of the Catholic Church [...] but the worry that the new technology would destroy economics and corrupt the youth." (pg. 52)

Sound familiar?  As I read through this section of the book, I was struck by how this idea finds its parallels throughout history.  When new technology first stretches its limbs, showing off its muscles, the initial reaction is not unanimously positive.  On the one hand, change can be good.  New technology can bring about solutions to problems that were previously unimaginable, but... technology can suck out our souls and steal our humanity as we know it leaving us as empty shells that stay in bed all day and eat food out of tubes and then the robots will take over the world!

And breathe.  

I kid.  Smile.  Though I'm sure most people have seen or heard at least one story where technological innovation comes back to haunt us.  I find it fascinating that people centuries ago feared technology that I now adore: the book.  (As an aside, I wonder, in another couple hundred years, what future generations will think about our reactions and beliefs about forms of technology?)

Back to books: Because of the invention of the printing press (1400s), books could be printed en masse and spread throughout the populace.  That caused fear for many people for a number of reasons.  One of these being that all of a sudden, impressionable young people (if they could read or if they were learning to read or had a reading friend), were all of a sudden much closer to "corruptible ideas."  Now, returning to the present, this idea hasn't really gone away and we see it manifest in the topic of banned books.  

This week is considered "Banned Book Week" and there are a number of articles and informational resources talking about this hot topic.  You can even take a quizzes that will tell you which banned book you are.  (If you're curious to know, I got the Hunger Games. I didn't even know it was banned anywhere).  From the perspective of a young adult who has only recently left her teens, I can say that I've read a lot of YA fiction.  Some have been more controversial than others and a handful have been banned, depending on where you go.  To name a few: To Kill a Mocking BirdFahrenheit 451, A Wrinkle in Time, all of the Harry Potters, Lord of the Flies... and others.  

I can't say that one book completely altered my way of thinking and made me believe certain ideas--maybe you or someone else can.  I find it hard to believe that we have this fear that if someone read X book, they will automatically learn to believe Y idea and thus become corrupted.  The human brain is only a sponge to a certain extent.  If a book can supposedly have that effect, what about the tumultuous number of infomercials and advertisements that we see daily?  Being visual messages, we can absorb them a lot faster than a book, so shouldn't we ban them instead?

image via google
I'm not saying that students won't be influenced by what they see and read, but instead of blocking them at the threshold, I think that we should focus on them how to take in what they read and evaluate it based on what they know to be true.  I think we should teach them to compare and contrast what they read so that they can recognize what it is they are taking in and why.  Let's raise a group of readers who will use the organ between their ears instead of soaking up what they see with their eyes.

Fear fosters fear.  Fostering the fear of a book seems pretty silly to me.

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