My oldest daughter called the other day to say that she is reading Of Human Bondage. She picked up a copy at a sale because her best friend in high school had said it was her favorite book, and my daughter figured any novel that could so impress a 17-year-old girl must be worth reading. Upon hearing this, I started reading the ebook copy which has resided on my pda ever since the title caught my attention on a Gutenberg.org search for something else some years ago.
So my daughter and I are sharing the experience of this book, which she and her old friend have now shared in retrospect, and the three of us will have shared an experience with the author, W. Somerset Maugham. That’s quite a span of time, and quite a varied set of personalities and perspectives.
This is, of course, the magic of text. My daughter is in Nebraska; I’m in Wisconsin. The physical distance means nothing in terms of both engaging the same book. She is reading it in 2008; her friend read it a dozen years ago. The distance in time does not prevent their both engaging the same tale. Maugham published it in 1915, nearly a hundred years ago, and through it speaks to my daughter, her friend, and myself across nearly a century.
Something comforts me specifically in the fact that Maugham’s words speak to us four decades beyond his death. Similarly, I’m comforted by the late Sara Teasdale’s words from “Moonlight,” 75 years after her passing, and by Keats’ nearly 200-year-old sonnet, “When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be.” Something very grand resides in the fact that human expression, through text, can transcend entire centuries, letting you and me know that someone who was here before felt as we do.
I’m exceedingly happy to see texts such as these being archived online, being made available to anyone with an Internet connection. The term “public library” is expanding to become something global. We have entered the age of “Library 2.0,” and I trust that it will be as much a boon to the common good as the earliest public libraries were in Germany, Britain, and the U.S.A.
This assumes, of course, that people can read. We can only hope that the lure of all the free information and entertainment residing in texts, and their easy access online, will help to drive a new desire to literacy in the general populace. Given the long-term effect of early public libraries in their day, that hope does not seem unreal.