Prejudice can be terrible to behold and worse to experience. In its most virulent forms – such as sexism, nationalism, ageism and racism – it can destroy communities and erode relationships. Sometimes its Medusa-like coils seem determined to wrap around every aspect of our lives. Prejudice helps lay the foundation for religious intolerance and class envy. Prejudice colors discussions of politics and sometimes renders problematic the most well-intentioned attempts at problem-solving. Even minor irritants like social snobbery and cliquish behavior have a soupçon of prejudice stirred into their mix. All of us are prejudiced, it seems, but in a wonderful bit of irony, none of us wishes to appear so. It’s simply who we are.
On the other hand, not every bit of prejudice is necessarily destructive. The world is filled with pre-judgments that serve as a kind of human shorthand and they’re often quite humorous. American football fans think soccer is “wussie”. Soccer afficionados contend American football is thuggish and unskilled. Sailors refer to powerboat sorts as “stinkpotters” while those making way with the help of gasoline or diesel make disparaging remarks about the “rag haulers”.
Country bumpkins may regard city slickers with disdain, but Mrs. McMansion is scandalized by the Bag Lady on her corner. When high-school dropouts makes smart remarks about highly educated folk who “pile it higher and deeper”, they’re no better or worse than PhDs who dismiss a high-school graduate’s “common sense” as useless and irrelevant.
Fortunately, such stereotypes can be overcome and often are – by shared experience, new information or personal encounters. Even so, far beneath our pre-judgments and stereotypes, at the very bottom of the prejudicial heap lies a response so unthinking, so immediate and pure it seems instinctive, a primordial rejection of the fearful, the unfamiliar or the odd. Take, for example, my first experience with the venerable Brussels sprout.
I wasn’t a fussy eater as a child, but I had my preferences and I was willing to express them. One day my mother showed up at the table with a bowl of Brussels sprouts. “Would you like some?” she asked. I was polite. “No, thank you.” “Why not?” “I don’t like them.” Thinking she knew the answer to her next question, she asked it anyway. “Have you ever tasted them?” “No.” “Then why don’t you try one?” “I don’t like them.”
Never one to give up easily, my mother persisted. “You like cabbage, don’t you?” I allowed as I did. “Don’t they look just like little cabbages?” “Yes.” “Aren’t they cute?” They were cute. “How about you try just one?” It didn’t happen.
Years later I ran into Brussels sprouts at a friend’s house, where they were being grilled with lemon, butter and garlic. When they arrived at the table in their pretty yellow bowl, dressed with lemon wedges, I decided the time had come. I put three or four on my plate and tried one. In an instant my childhood prejudice was confirmed. Sing their praises if you will, but from my point of view, those sprouts were the worst veggie to come down the culinary pike since grass. I’ve never tried one since.
Over the past months I’ve remembered my reaction to those Brussels sprouts as I’ve watched e-readers flood the market: Nook, Kindle and iPad particularly, but also second-tier products trying to scramble their way onto the bandwagon.
When a friend suggested, “You ought to get one,” the first word out of my mouth was “no”. “Why not?” she asked. I rattled off the reasons.
*My books always are “on” – they function perfectly well without batteries.
*There’s more information per page in my books.
*No one will hack my bookshelf.
*I can keep a book as long as I want without having to worry about it being supported.
*Books don’t break, and a book that’s been dropped in the water can be fished out, dried off and read.
*Books smell good; plastic doesn’t.
*I can press flowers or leaves in books.
*I can turn down the corner of a page.
*Doing research, I can have three, or six, or fifteen books lying open at the same time.
*Each time I re-read a favorite, I can add comments in the margin with differently-colored ink, creating a palimpsest of response.
When I stopped for breath, my friend said, “But you can put a thousand books on it.” I suggested I wouldn’t read a thousand books of any kind before my death. She pointed out I could make the text bigger. I pointed to my reading glasses. She told me about the variety of free books available, and I told her about a place called “the library”. “Well,” she said, “it’s a flat fact you can prop it up more easily in front of a cereal bowl.” That stopped me. Of all the advantages a Kindle or Nook might have, that one seemed most compelling. But, it wasn’t enough.
“Listen,” I said. “Just tell me. What makes your Kindle better than a book?” “It’s not better,” she said. “It’s just different. They’re great. Everyone loves them. I’ll loan you mine for a week. Don’t you want to try it?” Clearly, I appreciated her willingness to share her new toy. But still, the answer was “no”.
Thinking about it later, I began to see the Nooks and Kindles of the world as strange “e”-quivalents to that passel of Brussels sprouts I passed on as a child. My objections to them sound vaguely rational, but my opposition is tinged with irrationality. The fact is I’m prejudiced against them, in a way I’m not fully able to explain.
Victor Hugo might understand my confusion. He spent much of his life pondering the significance of an earlier technological revolution – the use of movable type – and its implications for human culture. I doubt Hugo was prejudiced against books in the same way I’m prejudiced against e-readers. After all, writing and publishing were his business and his passion. Still, reflections embedded into his novel Notre-Dame de Paris make clear he was able to imagine the discomfort of standing at a juncture in history where the old is in process of giving way to the new.
Early in Notre-Dame de Paris the antagonist, Claude Frollo, encourages two visitors to lift their gaze from a book lying on his desk to the massive silhouette of Notre Dame.”This (the printing press) will kill that (the cathedral),” he declares.
Frollo’s point of view is the conviction of Hugo – that the history of architecture is the history of writing. Before Gutenberg, culture was communicated through architecture. From Stonehenge to the Parthenon, from The Alhambra to the soaring grace of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, stories were preserved in “books of stone.” With the invention of the printing press, everything changed. In Book Five, Chapter Two of his own grand story, Hugo dives directly into the depths of his argument.
Human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression… the book of stone, so solid and so durable, was about to make way for the book of paper, more solid and still more durable. Architecture was dethroned. The lead characters of Gutenberg succeeded the stone characters of Orpheus.
In its printed form, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is volatile, elusive, indestructible. It mingles with the air. In the days of architecture, thought had turned into a mountain and taken powerful hold of a century and of a place. Now it turned into a flock of birds and was scattered on the four winds occupying every point of air and space simultaneously.
We repeat: who cannot see that in this guise it is far more indelible? Before, it was solid, now it is alive. It has passed from duration to immortality. You can demolish a great building, but how do you root out ubiquity? Come a flood and the mountain will long ago have vanished beneath the waters while the birds are still flying; let a single ark be floating on the surface of the cataclysm and they will alight on it, will survive on it, and, like it, will be present at the receding of the waters; and as it awakes, the new world which emerges from the chaos will see the ideas of the drowned world soaring above it, winged and full of life.
Hugo never pretended architecture would disappear, or that it would cease to communicate in its own, particular way. He knew that in the age of printing, the age of building would survive. But architecture would no longer be “the social art, the collective art, the dominating art. The grand poem, the grand edifice, the grand work of humanity will no longer be built: it will be printed.” It was to be a “both/and” world.
Today, even those within the publishing industry who are most enthusiastic about the transition to e-readers are not contending that printed books, the heritage of Gutenberg, will disappear. But where a system can support them, where electrical grids and wireless networks and chips make them possible, e-readers will join the printed page to keep the richness of culture soaring above a new world, winged and full of life.
This leaves me with a bit of a dilemma. Over the years I’ve become very much a “both/and” kind of person. And yet in this matter of digital vs. print, I’ve been quite firmly “either/or”. In fact, I’ve been so adamantly “either/or” I don’t even need someone pointing to the hem of my mental skirt and saying, “Pardon me, Ma’am. Your prejudice is showing” to know I’ve been a little sloppy in putting together my thoughts.
Whether or not I become a fan of e-reading, I clearly should give it a try. If I truly don’t like it, preference still beats prejudice every time. It would be a bit of fun to download Notre-Dame de Paris for free, and read about the consequences of new technology on – well, on a new technology. And who knows? I might discover a Kindle or Nook props up very nicely in front of a bowl of brussels sprouts.