Wednesday, June 21, 2006
A Sermon, on the Current Disputes Over Turning Off Cellphones in the British Library Reading Rooms;
You can use laptops
and take mobiles
in but please turn
off the sound
before you enter
a Reading Room.
As I wander the streets and Underground stations, I behold many men, women, and youths discoursing on their cellphones. Yea, they speak on the Tube. They speak on the sidewalks. They speak in cafes. They speak in the stores. Is there to be no end to these people forever speaking?
The British Library has decreed that certain things should work silently--the patrons of their Reading Rooms, for example. And yet, there is a dispute concerning the sacred text, which I have printed above: does it actually prohibit using cellphones in the British Library Reading Rooms? Or (as subtle minds have it) does it rather invite the aforementioned discoursings? I say unto you: the sanity of academics hangs in the balance.
To discover the true meaning of this text, let us consider the following two questions:
I. Is the text to be interpreted literally or figuratively?
II. If, as Reason and common sense alike demand, the text should be interpreted literally, what should be the result?
Let us begin, as is logical, with the first question: Is the text to be interpreted literally or figuratively? Now, those who cry up the figurative position argue that the text is clearly in free verse. I have reprinted it as it appears on the multitudinous posters that ornament the Library’s massy walls, although without the mystical and perhaps hermetic symbols which accompany it (of which more anon). Those who believe that the text is, in fact, unpunctuated and non-metrical verse--and, therefore, admitting of a figurative meaning--advance the following claims:
Firstly, that the opening line, "You can use laptops," in fact bears a double signification. "You can use laptops," that is, it is permitted to use a laptop, but also "You can use laptops," that is, a laptop is a useful thing to have.
Secondly, that "and take mobiles," despite the lower-case "and," actually begins a new sentence, instead of being a second clause. Moreover, the verb "take" may mean either "carry" or "regard as an instance of." But an instance of what? "Mobiles." What is a mobile? We are informed that while some believe that a mobile is a cellphone, others think that a mobile is a decoration, and still others hold that it is anyone capable of movement. (Thus does the English language betray itself.) The poet who composed this verse neglects to inform us how we are to take mobiles--but this is only to stimulate our minds to penetrate the most sublime reaches of Mystery.
Now, those of us who object to this reading point to the third line as proof that our position is correct. We are informed, however, that there has merely been an error in transcription. Properly emended, the line reads "[Come] in[side] but please turn [quickly]." We are not sure what the manuscript evidence is for this new reading, but we have been informed that it solves all problems in an instant. The pro-versifiers argue that this line turns our attention away from material goods and towards the spiritual elevation traditionally found in dancing--especially in rapid spinning.
With that in mind, then, fourthly, "off the sound" has no relationship to the verb "turn," but rather refers to a place where one turns--namely, a sound, such as Plymouth Sound. In other words, once we have finished pondering laptops and mobiles, we should move on to higher things, like having mystical experiences at Plymouth Sound.
And, fifthly, having achieved a new enlightenment, we are temporarily held in suspension: "before you enter." We are to pause and meditate upon the wisdom which has descended upon us in the act of spinning. But before you enter where, the obstinate literalist inquires? This, we are told, is an inexpressible mystery, and therefore unfit to be written; just as the line has no period, the thought has no period (that is to say, no end).
Sixthly, and finally, "a Reading Room" does not refer to any room contained within the British Library, but rather signifies a room that is itself in the process of reading. In other words, the end of the poem invites us to contemplate an image of deep self-reflexivity. Not only does the poem invite human beings to transcend the material in favor of the spiritual, but the material itself is shown to achieve self-consciousness. In other words, the verse entirely fails to speak to the question of cellphones in the reading rooms.
Those in favor of this figurative interpretation further adduce the mystical symbols. These comprise icons of a checkmark, a laptop with a cross through the volume control, and a phone with a cross through the volume control. Here, we are told, are the true instructions, which have been rendered in visual form so as to be clear to all visitors. The pro-versifiers triumphantly point to the fact that the iconic cellphone is not itself crossed out, just like the laptop. Hence, it appears that it is perfectly correct to use a cellphone in the reading rooms.
Now, those of us who are literalists can admire the ornamental, nay, flashy, brilliance of these curious interpreters. But we must object to both their procedures and their conclusions. For it is obvious to anyone capable of reading a poster that they have committed the Fishian heresy--namely, ascribing poetic significance to the mere accident of a sentence’s arrangement on a page. Woe, woe unto those who succumb to the allure of the Fish! We would not be thought intolerant. But all the evidence of Reason, as well as human experience, forces us to hold that there is one, and one only, interpretation of this sentence: that it is lawful to utilize a laptop, and to bring in one’s cellphone, but that no express permission has been granted to actually speak into the phone; moreover, all such objects must be rendered properly silent before they are carried into the rooms consecrated to the pursuits of the Muses.
This conclusion being reached, then, what should be the result?
It is not proper to render things indifferent into things essential. Nevertheless, we feel constrained to write to our pixellated brethren; we feel forced to utter words we would fain hold deep within our hearts; we feel, in sum, an urge to bear witness to the truth of the text on the wall. Given that the purpose of the Reading Rooms is to read; and given that the purpose of a cellphone is to talk; and given that talking infringes on the concentration of those reading; it therefore seems to us that those who cannot refrain from airy communications should do so in a place more suitable. Moreover, given the indisputable law handed down in the text, it also seems to us that cellphones ought, perhaps, to be set on vibrate prior to entering into the sacred halls.
We hope that our brethren have taken this sermon in the charitable spirit with which it has been delivered. Let us all celebrate the dawning of an age of blessed silence!
[X-posted from The Little Professor.]
Treating linebreaks as punctuation overlooks the visual compositional aspects, an alternation of longer and shorter lines with the former diminishing against the libration of the latter. The metrical implication is that each couplet may be read as a single line, transcribed from medieval forms, perhaps to the Eddas, in order to place stresses properly (particularly in the problematic third line). That said, this verse clearly departs from the oral tradition unless one views postmodernism as a return via unvoiced irony.
It clearly prohibits their use. They are not the only library to have such a policy. The Library of Congress has a very strictly enforced policy of no cell phone use in reading rooms. I have seen men forcibly ejected by LOC police from the main reading room for using cell phones. I wish more places would enforce such civility codes. I have never owned a cell phone and believe their contraptions have greatly eroded life in places like London and DC.