Leave It To Books To Spark Imagination

IN matters of entertainment and enlightenment, hardly anything is left to the imagination anymore. Radio and books are particular cases in point.

When I was young, there was no television. Radio was our electronic entertainer. It was an immensely gratifying one because, without fully realizing it, we, the listeners, participated in the drama.

We imagined the settings to go with the voices and sounds in everything from late-afternoon children's programs - "Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy" - to deliciously sinister evening shows such as "The Shadow."

One of my fondest and most enduring childhood memories is of summer nights in Winnetka, Ill., when a gang of little boys would crowd into my older brother's room - sprawled on beds and on the floor - to listen to "Lights Out," a radio program that managed to remain within the bounds of good taste but was also scary beyond belief. As doors creaked and unspeaking men walked down corridors, each of us saw, in our own minds, the cobwebby rooms, the faces in shadows, and the eerie figures peering in through rain-streaked windows on thundery nights.

Television's contrived creep shows are sitcoms by comparison.

In much the same vein, movies cannot touch the profound depths of the mind the way the best books do. Various attempts to film F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" (arguably one of the great American novels) have inevitably fallen flat because they are unable to convey the moral dimension of the story evident on the printed page.

"Gatsby" is more than a jazz-age tale of obsession and deception. It is an indictment of what Fitzgerald believed America had become, an elegy for a lost, better time. "So we beat on," laments its closing line, "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Movies don't have that sort of eloquence, even those starring Robert Redford.

Only books - which bind their readers to themselves in a cocoon of intimacy - can convey the deeper meaning of masterpieces such as "The Great Gatsby."

It is too late to resurrect radio as it once was. In this country we rarely broadcast radio dramas. Books are still the best exercise for the imagination. But now books might be replaced by computers, with words printed on a screen.

"Huckleberry Finn" would somehow change, lose its authenticity, if it appeared to readers in letters glowing out of a dark screen.

Let's not let that happen.

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