The Last of the Dinosaurs
Ever since Professor Oggel suggested that I make some brief comments this afternoon, I’ve been thinking about archaeopteryx. Not the band Archeopteryx –God no, not that band, yuchhh! -- but the dinosaur.
Archaeopteryx was a small dinosaur, about the size of a crow. He had feathers of a sort, and wings. He could glide, but not fly, and he had a mouth with teeth but not a bill, and he had a long tail. So he wasn’t exactly a bird, but rather a dinosaur.
Now, as most of you know, about 65.5 million years ago, a gigantic meteorite crashed into the earth. It killed off all the dinosaurs. All except archaeopteryx. Tyrannosaurus rex? Gone. Triceratops? All dead. Velociraptor, stegosaurus, pteranodon, sauropod, in the space of a few hundred years, all wiped out, all extinct. But archaeopteryx survived. And by 65 million years ago, that last archeopteryx must have been pretty disoriented. Here he was, this tough little critter that had evolved during the great age of the dinosaurs. He had been around for about 100 million years, sharing his lakes and swamps and wetlands with duckbills and ankylosaurs and apatosaurs. Now they were all just gone, replaced by weird little rodents and odd looking primates.
And what’s more, his own children and grandchildren and great grandchildren weren’t familiar, either. They weren’t like him. They weren’t even exactly archaeopteryx any more. They were something else. Not really dinosaurs at all, they had evolved into birds. They didn’t glide, they flew. They didn’t have teeth, they had beaks. Their tails were short, they had one toe that turned backwards, and they didn’t have any claws on their wings.
That last archaeopteryx must have felt pretty bad. Everything he knew and loved was gone, and everything that had come in their place seemed strange and foreign and uncomfortable. Either this world wasn’t right for him, or he wasn’t right for this new kind of world.
I think I know how he felt.
Nearly twenty years ago, my world was impacted by an earth shattering event, nearly as devastating to me and my kind as the meteorite that slammed into the Gulf of Mexico 65.5 million years ago. On April 30, 1993, CERN, the European nuclear research center in Geneva, announced that the World Wide Web would be free and available to anyone with a computer and a phone line.
Neither I nor any of my friends in the English departments around the world knew it then, but our time, our world, our intellectual environment, was ending. The books that we had grown up with and loved so much were dying out, ceasing to be books at all and becoming instead text files and .pdf’s and .html documents. The bibliographies and encyclopedias and journals that we had relied on for decades were being removed from the shelves of libraries and turned into “databases,” whatever that means. The card catalog was replaced with computer terminals and, unthinkably, coffee shops and snacking tables.
And our students, our intellectual children and grand children – well, they certainly weren’t like us. They wanted to talk seriously about things that we could hardly regard as anything but childish nonsense. They talked about comic books – COMIC BOOKS!, for goodness sake – as if they were literature. They called them “graphic novels” but we all knew that “a rose by any other name” was still a rose, and comic books were still comic books, no matter what you called them. They thought that Jack Kerouac was a serious writer. And they played games! Video games, to be sure, but still games, children’s toys, things that you played at, amusements and entertainments, but not the serious stuff of scholarly study.
Like the archaeopteryx, we felt as though these were our children, our students, but they weren’t our kind. They had changed, become something different. If I was a dinosaur, then they were birds, and they weren’t living in my world, which was gone, but I was living in theirs, which was just emerging.
Of course, we archaeopteryx did our best to adapt. We got computers on our desks, and we learned how to access JSTOR for articles and Project Gutenberg for books. We bought Kindles and iPads and Androids. We learned to post grades on Blackboard and to show videos from YouTube in class – Robert Pinsky reading “Samurai Song,” and Benjamin Zephaniah reciting Shelley’s “Ye Men of England” or chanting his “Dis Poetry.”
Some of us archaeopteryx, at least I, tried to introduce ourselves to the new kinds of literature, poems and stories that could not even have been imagined in our time, interactive .html narratives like These Waves of Girls or 99 Constellations for Wittgenstein and Flash animated poems like Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ “Into the Night” or “Miss DMZ.”
Others among the archaeopteryx insist that although the world is now full of birds, not dinosaurs, some of those birds still want to readreal books, and so they assign their classes to read 3400 pages of Victorian novels.
We’re both wrong, of course, and we’re both right. “Real books” – Dickens and Conrad, Wordsworth and Yeats – still have a place in the world, but they are increasingly “viewed” on a Nook or listened to on an mp3 player instead of being read on a printed page of paper. And “electronic literature” continues to become more and more widely practiced as budding young authors see the expressive and creative possibilities that can be accomplished by combining words and text with audio files and graphic images.
And so, speaking now as quite possibly the very last true archaeopteryx in the Department of English, I can say to you graduates, and to my younger colleagues as well, I wish you well in the years and decades to come. My world was filled with literary giants – in the 1950’s Norman Mailer was a tyrannosaurus among novelists, and in the 1960’s Elizabeth Bishop was a veritable pteranodon among poets – but their kind is rapidly going as extinct as any dinosaur, replaced by a newly evolved kind of “writer” -- novelists who compose entire trilogies about comic strip characters, for instance, and poets who are more widely read in electronic journals than in slim volumes of print.
The world has evolved into the age of the avians, and I wish you all the best in this new era. The time of the literary archaeopteryx is past, and although your new era may be strictly for the birds, I believe that you younger writers and readers and teachers can, therefore, learn to fly. The next few years and decades – YOUR years and decades – promise to be remarkably exciting as you begin your blogs and create your digital stories. In a sense, I envy you. I wish that I had been born digital – the new and as yet unimagined possibilities are so great.
And yet, I am happy to have come of age in the time when great dinosaurs of the printed word still roamed the earth, the age of Robert Lowell and Philip Larkin, of I. B. Singer and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. And I hope that you, as you spread your imaginative wings, will remember them, too, and their great predecessors in the time of the printed word and the paper book. I am sure that they would all, as do I, wish you all the very best as you soar away from us, your professors here at VCU, and especially from me the last of the dinosaurs.
Editor's Note: The QB Crew thanks Professor Sharp for giving us permission to post the text to his speech here. Congratulations again to all VCU 2012 graduates. Go Rams!