March 1, 2010
What about books?
One of the many fine volumes on the stacks in the children's section of our library is The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg. The author is famous for his train story, The Polar Express (perhaps because it became a major motion picture?), but The Wretched Stone is, in my estimation, the far better and more important book.
The Wretched Stone is written (and illustrated) as the journal of a captain who journeys with his men across the sea and finds on a deserted island a strange, glowing stone. He takes the stone back aboard the ship and puts it beneath the deck. In a short period of time the sailors abandon the songs that they used to sing, and their practice of reading aloud, and instead sit below the deck staring at the dull light of the blue stone. Not only do the sailors abandon their singing; they also neglect their work. And one day, to the horror of the captain, he discovers that his men have turned into monkeys.
This is Van Allsburg's brilliant literary portrayal of the influence of television upon the intellect and imagination of human beings. (I will omit the conclusion of his tale so that you can enjoy it firsthand, and "in hand" in your local library!) He is not writing a tirade against the evils of television. He is telling a story and painting a picture of the influence that "the wretched stone" has on the human mind and soul. As I sat enjoying books with my girls in the library on that snowy day, I couldn't help but think that the television isn't the only wretched stone. When children make the trek to the library (alone, I assume, as I saw not a single parent present) in order to sit in front of a screen, to the exclusion of the wealth of literature around them, have we moved forward or backward? Will they walk past the Van Allsburg book again which might awaken them from their slumber? Or will we perhaps awaken one day to see, as the captain saw, the frightful change, that has come over those who gaze upon the wretched stone?