There were men and women throughout the library reading books. A librarian wearing a sweater over her shoulders sat at a desk organizing a stacks of three by five index cards. A young man sat at a table, his face visible behind two columns of heavy, academic tomes. He held his finger up to his lips in the universal sign of “Ssshhh!”
A convict in an orange jumpsuit stood atop a long ladder, placing a book back onto the shelf. Buried in the thick hair on the prisoner’s forearm was a crude and fading tattoo. A gold tooth shone out from his sneering mouth.
“Why are there prisoners here?” Bert yelled out.
“Look at the book he’s holding!” Another student laughed. She was quickly joined by the others. Clutched in the dirty hand, either being put on the shelf or taken down, was a book with the words: “How to Break Out of Prison” printed on the cover.
“It says here,” Mr. Oberst began to read. “‘In the early twenty-first century, the overflowing prisons could not keep up with constant flow of new prisoners sent in from the courts. To cope with the numbers, convicted offenders were sometimes given the opportunity to perform community service in lieu of a jail sentence. Several of these men and women volunteered at libraries for their community service.'”
The children seemed to find that fascinating. The convict on the ladder, all of the wax figures looked so real and life like. Mr. Oberst encouraged them to move around, check things out. This was an interactive museum, a snapshot of the past. For a few minutes the children ran between the lines of floor to ceiling shelves. A few of the boys swung from one of the ladders. A squad of overachievers even went so far as to read the placard about the Dewey Decimal System. By fifteen minutes everyone had retreated to his or her own corner and pulled out their phone.
Oberst didn’t care, field trips were always blow off days anyway. He pulled out his own phone and began to play a quick game.
“Yeah, what?” He tried to split his focus. Children had the worst timing. He was about to finish his level and get a free power-up.
“Why did people ever come to places like this for books? It had to be unsanitary, a book going from house to house, being breathed on and handled from family to family.”
“It was! It was very unsanitary. But you have to remember, people back then didn’t know as much as we do about science stuff.”
“Why don’t people read books anymore?”
The final cupcake fell into place and completed the gingerbread house on Mr. Oberst’s game. The screen appeared to rain down a wash of golden coins and the sight of the words “15 Bonus Points” sent a smile to his face. He put his phone back so he could give the students his attention.
“We don’t need to read books anymore. We have the internet.” He told the three who were listening. “Before the internet people didn’t know how to share ideas so they wrote these long books. Hundreds and thousands of pages just to try and make a simple point. There were no headlines or feeds. You had to go read every page of every book to see what the author was trying to say.”
He picked up a faux book from one of the shelves. On the cover were printed the words “Crime & Punishment by Fedor Dostevsky”. However, the book had only a cover and then the rest was just cardboard with a QR code. Oberst held his phone up to the QR code and a digital voice spoke out. “Crime and Punishment was written by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky in 1866. The central theme is: Crime is not good.”
“See?” Mr. Oberst put the not-a-book back on the shelf. “Imagine having to read six or seven thousand pages just to learn that it’s bad to commit crimes. People back then were such dumbasses.”
The children agreed. They tried a few themselves, opening the front cover and focusing their phones on the square block of code inside. The phones began to sing out with pitch-perfect digital voices free of any regional dialect. “The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin: Being black in 1960s America was not easy.” The QR codes told the children that Hemmingway’s master thesis was “Fishing is difficult.” and that Orwell’s Animal Farm, as a whole, maintained “Animals would be bad at forming a government.”
“Can you imagine wasting all that time reading?” Cristofer snorted from behind his phone. The cheers his phone gave off indicated he was doing well at whatever game he was playing. Everyone pretty much spent the next hour on their phones until the bus arrived to take them back to school. “
“Okay everybody. Me and you guys need to get back to school. Make sure everyone who needs to use the shitter goes before we leave.” Mr. Oberst called out absently from behind his phone. He’d blown his fifteen bonus points already and had ended up just buying more for twenty bucks. He looked up one last time to make sure he wasn’t leaving any of the kids behind. This library museum was like the Mennonite farm, or the Medieval Europe exhibit, or the Pre-War Suburb, just a time-wasting reminder of how bad people had it in the past. He shuddered, glad that he lived in the most learned and advanced time in human history. A veritable utopia.
Apparently little Suesan Harris was having different thoughts. “Mr. Oberst, I don’t understand. Why didn’t they just write down what the book was about on the cover for the next reader. Why go through each and every one yourself?”
“Because before the internet, everyone was a lot stupider. At the very most, a human being might have been able to read a hundred books in his eighty-year lifespan. That’s more than three books a year! Today, I can take in a hundred websites in a week. Websites have pictures and vids and shit and books don’t.”
“Mr. Oberst?” Suesan seemed troubled. She was one of the worst about taking her lesson. Instead of following the pictures on the lesson app she always had these inane questions to ask. “Writers sometimes spent years writing them. If we can condense what they had to say into a few words, why couldn’t the writer have just done that in the first place? Maybe there’s more to books than we think?”
“That was all before we studied books. Just like the microchip and the phone, all these really smart people spent years in college studying books. They figured out how to summarize everything so we don’t have to. You’re being a dumbass again. What do I tell you? Overthinking is underperforming.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Oberst.”
“That’s okay. Now get on the bus and I’ll let you sing the first verse on our way home.”
Suesan got onto the bus. The children’s downward faces all glowed in the light of their phones. Mr. Oberst was last on. The bus door shut behind him and they were off. Suesan stood at the front and began the song they’d sing for the next hour on their way back to school. The song they always sung, on field-trips, at games, weddings. She began.
“Our Leader is great, he’s blessed our land.
By killing all the bad people with his own very hands
He watches over us each and every day
He does the thinking for us, so we all get to play!
We salute him and honor his mighty name.
President Browne is the divine one, Come to Earth again!“
The other children, still enveloped in their games, were all quick to join the song as one. They continued on repeat, Mr. Oberst and the bus driver too, until the barbed wire atop the twenty-foot concrete walls of their school became visible on the horizon.