Whispering Pines: Of Books, Sweet Serenity, and Best Friends

In this month’s column, John Cross ’76 writes about the power and importance of books, and of a bright future for bibliophiles.

One hundred and thirty-five years ago Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of the Class of 1825 delivered Morituri Salutamus, a tribute in verse to the members of his class on the occasion of their 50th Reunion. Of the 285 lines in Longfellow’s poem about aging and the passage of time, one couplet has resonated with bibliophiles everywhere:

“The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books…”

For me the quote evokes a wood-paneled library filled with volumes with gilt-lettered spines, a leather arm chair, perhaps an antique globe on a stand, and a silence made all the more noticeable by the soft tick-tock of a pendulum clock. I can almost reconstruct in my mind’s eye (or nose?) that faint and familiar scent of ink, aging paper, and leather bindings. It is a romantic image – the library or a single book as a refuge from the hectic pace and often unpleasant realities of everyday life.

Fortunately, an idyllic setting is neither a prerequisite for engaging the mind with the written word nor for thinking great thoughts. Love of learning can flourish without a sequestered nook, tucked in between the demands of busy home, work, and social schedules. And while we’re at it, important books that lay bare uncomfortable truths or explore the darker side of human nature through unsettling fictions might not be characterized as either “sweet” or “serene.”

These days, many of us read digital books, newspapers, and magazines. A single e-book reader the size of a slender 8″ by 5″ volume can hold the contents of 3,500 books electronically. E-books constitute the very small tip of the very large information technology iceberg. Rare books that have been out of print for many years, manuscripts, and historical documents are often accessible on the Internet in digital format. Bowdoin’s Hawthorne-Longfellow Library puts much of the world’s knowledge at a researcher’s fingertips through electronic subscriptions to academic journals, digital databases of images, sound, and text, and access to the holdings of libraries at Colby, Bates, and other institutions. In the rapidly-changing world of technology, issues of copyright and intellectual property rights, and the compatibility of various e-publication formats with different brands of computers, e-readers, and personal data devices pose new challenges for students, faculty, and librarians.

Love of learning can flourish without a sequestered nook, tucked in between the demands of busy home, work, and social schedules.

We stand astride a technological divide, one foot on a path that leads from Johannes Gutenberg and the invention of the movable-type printing press in the 15th century and the other on a high-speed digital highway. For all its speed and volume of information traffic, the highway does not capture the range of meanings that may be embodied in a three-dimensional book. As physical objects, books are created within a particular context of time, place, and circumstance, and they each possess a unique history of ownership and use. We remember where and when they were acquired and read. They may be inscribed, given or received as gifts, and they accumulate emotional associations and social significance that far exceeds the value of the materials from which they are made, or the sum total of the words and images that are found within them. For example, in my office there is a well-worn copy of Flags of the World Past and Present, published in 1915 in London, a book that is otherwise unexceptional but for the cursive fountain-pen inscription “Athern Park Daggett, Christmas 1916,” written by the hand of a 13-year-old boy who would grow up to be a member of the Class of 1925, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Constitutional and International Law and Government, and a brilliant teacher at Bowdoin, and Acting President of the College in 1967 and 1968. To feel a book’s weight, turn its pages, and know that it had been a part of another’s educational journey adds an intangible – and important – dimension to the experience of reading.

The ability to draw from both worlds – the printed word and digital information – promises a bright future for liberal arts students. Groucho Marx once famously remarked, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” If only Groucho had owned an e-reader with a backlit screen…

With Best Wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

(Images courtesy of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives.)

Comments

  1. Albert DeMoya says:

    There is no substitute for a real book, the physical sensation of holding it in your hands, the texture of the paper, the faint smell of the ink, the musty odor of an old volume.

  2. John E. Simonds says:

    Afternoons in Hubbard Hall, broken by the 4 p.m. chapel bells, have returned in the form of gray memories from a half-century ago, along with thoughts of sequestered library stacks of metal shelves and thick glass floors, not as comfortable as the padded upstairs fraternity house window seats but freer of chatting distractions. The former library retains its classic cathedral image of the quiet learning center, the inside place to do the outside reading. Thanks for another fine column, this one with the latest on books from Androscoggin.com. jes ’57.

  3. Julia Reed says:

    Great column- I am a librarian and work at a special collections research library, and have thought a lot about these issues. Technology will never replace physical books; the combination of the two will provide an even greater learning environment.

  4. William Davies says:

    Great piece, John. Electronic delivery of information is important and a great boon to students (and everyone else, but you’ve identified some of the intangibles of the “real” book that can’t be found in any other form.

  5. Nancy Bellhouse May says:

    I know just how you feel. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Sherrie Bergman says:

    Nice piece about one of our favorite topics in the H-L Library, John. I want to point out that the Bowdoin Library offers thousands of e-books and circulates several e-book readers, i.e., we champion both physical and e-books. Each format offers its own advantages.

  7. Bill Heath says:

    You’ve done it again, John–written another thoughtful, stimulating essay that makes one want to write back to you. Thank you for reminding us of the enduring appeal of the book as physical object in a technological age. I keep a file of quotations about books and reading, and will share this one with you by way of keeping the conversation going. It’s by Doris Lessing, in The Golden Notebook: “There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag–and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement.”

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