The death of Christopher Hitchens, the iconoclastic journalist and staunch atheist known for the breadth of his intellect and the depth of his convictions, is an occasion to reflect on what we’ve lost now that such a stellar mind is no longer a part of the public scene. But Mr. Hitchens’ passing should also be a time to consider how a mind like his was sparked in the first place.
Hitchens, in an essay published not long before his death, traced his intellectual origins to a bookmobile.
“When I was very young I lived in a remote village on the edge of an English moorland,” Hitchens recalled. “Every week, a mobile library would stop near my house, and I would step up through the back door of a large van to find its carpeted interior lined with bookshelves.... If I live to see retirement, I would quite like to be a driver of such a vehicle, bringing books to eager young readers like a Librarian in the Rye.”
Hitchens, alas, didn’t live to indulge his senior years behind the wheel of a bookmobile. And even if he had survived, the celebrated essayist and political commentator might have had some trouble finding a job as a bookmobile driver.
As gas prices rise, more reading services migrate online, and local governments face cutbacks, bookmobile services in some communities have been curtailed or eliminated. As libraries increase digital collections, many of which can be accessed at the click of a button, bookmobiles might seem obsolete.
But new technologies can often complement rather than replace existing ones, as I’ve been reminded in my community of Baton Rouge, where bookmobiles serve as roving classrooms to teach computer skills. In addition, the book vans provide reading material to patrons who might not be ready or able to browse for materials online, like older readers in retirement communities and younger ones in preschool centers. Such services are especially critical in poorer states where many residents continue to lack Internet access.
And while e-books can be wonderful things, there’s still a lot to be said for the tangible pleasure that comes in connecting with traditional, printed volumes.
For those who live beyond the reach of a bricks-and-mortar library, bookmobiles have been a lifeline for generations.
As author Nancy Smiler Levinson has pointed out, Hitchens' fellow Englishman, Thomas Bray expressed the ideal of mobile libraries as far back as 1679, when he suggested that “standing libraries will signify little in the country where persons must ride some miles to look into a book; but lending libraries which come home to them without charge, may tolerably well supply the vacancies in their own studies...”
Long before the Internet, Bray concluded that when readers cannot easily go to literature, then literature must, in some way, go to them.
One shudders to think what we might have missed if a bookmobile had never turned into Christopher Hitchens’ neighborhood.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”