Save the book?

Last week, the Encyclopedia Britannica made headlines when it announced that it was launching the last-ever print edition of its classic series. It seems like presence of Wikipedia and the easy access to information on the Internet has taken its toll, making publishing less than profitable.

As someone who loves paper books but reluctantly embraced the Kindle and then learned to like it, I struggled to consider what this actually meant—to me, and to the community of writers, publishers, and readers.

Born in the mid-80s, I’m a part of the generation that simultaneously had access to all the forms of technology that kids today have (video games, cell phones, computers, and the Internet)—but only halfway through my growing up years. That means I’m also a part of the generation that remembers life before all of those things, even before the now out-dated car phone.

Anyone born in the ’80s or late ’70s can relate to the desire to eagerly embrace technology while simultaneously reminiscing about what seems like a slower, less stressful childhood without it all.

That’s where William Joyce’s Oscar-winning “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” comes in. (It was given the 2012 award for an animated short film).

Mr. Morris Lessmore is a young man who wears a straw boater hat and a 1920s-style suit. The opening moments of the film find him comfortably seated on his balcony, writing in his journal. In a moment’s time, however, the wind picks up and begins to blow so fiercely that his town is turned upside down—but not before each and every word and letter scribbled into his writer’s notebook is carried away off the page.

When Morris lands on his feet again, the city he once knew no longer exists and has been replaced by an idyllic dreamland, full of picturesque fields, a beautiful girl who is floating through the sky, with the help of a bouquet of books where balloons should be. The forlorn look on Morris’s face as he flips through his journal’s now-blank pages causes any writer’s heart to drop, and seems vaguely reminiscent of the looks I’ve encountered on friends’ faces when they realize their laptops won’t start or that their hard drive is gone, everything on it beyond recovery. Morris might be an animated character stuck in a pseudo-1920s dream world, but his plight is relatable.

Only when he tosses his empty journal to the girl floating by with the balloons—effectively giving up his writing—is he led to a writer’s dream world: a beautiful library, with walls of leather-bound books which fly from shelf to shelf to shelf and greet him, almost begging to be read.

When Morris begins to read, another book opens up and shows a cardiogram on its pages. The moment Morris becomes engaged in the story, the book’s pulse seems to pick up and reach normalcy, coming back to life. Reading, the short film suggests, is the book’s lifeline… but also Morris’s.  Only after Morris has read this forgotten, old book can he begin to write again. A montage ensues where Morris ages as he writes beneath a tree near his library and helps people, one by one, find what I’d like to call their lifeline books. As each person picks up a book, he or she turns from black and white to color.

I won’t spoil the ending, but the tone of the piece as a whole reminds me of the 2009 Disney/Pixar classic Up.

The film seems to glorify a time, no so long ago, really, when reading was the best  form of entertainment available, and when libraries provided the only access to books that many families had.

It’s funny to think that just over a century ago that novels were considered lower-class entertainment and were scoffed at by so-called serious writers and intellectuals. (Poetry and more ‘refined’ forms of writing were preferred). Today, with the advent of the Kindle, the iPad, and visual culture (T.V., movies), reading a novel can feel almost like an exercise in nostalgia and sometimes in intellectualism.

But: why make a film, of all things, to celebrate books?

Part of the answer seems to come in one of the books that Morris finds when he first enters the library. Seeming to have a mind of its own, it follows Morris around with is pages stretched open wide. The static Humpty Dumpty in the middle comes to life, smiling and frowning as Morris goes through his day. It even wakes him up in the morning, ringing like an alarm and prodding him to get up.

I couldn’t help but think this book looked and acted an awful lot like an iPad.

In fact, director William Joyce even created an iPod application for the film, which is described as “an interactive narrative experience” which “blurs the line between picture books and animated films.”

The iPad seems like the perfect forum to do this.

And in embracing that technology while paying homage to beautiful leather-bound books in this film, Joyce seems to be suggesting that even as print books disappear, we don’t have to be nostalgic about the art of story-telling, which lives on in exciting ways because of, rather than despite, new technology.

Published this past week in the Southbridge Evening News and other newspapers, in a slightly different version. 

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