Because my father owned a women’s hosiery store, I found myself employed during junior and senior high summer vacations at his Midwestern Hosiery Company. Being able to call my boss 'Dad' had its advantages. My hours of work were basically from when I wanted to appear (10:00 a.m. seemed congenial) until Dad ran out of busy work and sent me home, much to the relief of both of us.
By my high school years I had requested a more creative position than a mere stock-boy stocking stockings. (I've been a connoisseur of awful puns for over sixty years now.) When pantyhose were first selling like crazy in the mid-1960’s, Dad upgraded me by saying I could help him create a catchy slogan stressing the durability of our pantyhose. He would use the testimonial for a local radio ad. I thought that my hastily invented motto was both catchy and hilarious, but somehow my usually doting dad immediately nixed it: MIDWESTERN HOSIERY COMPANY—OUR PANTYHOSE ARE BEST IN THE LONG RUN!” (Hey, I warned you three sentences ago about puns.)
I remember that on one particularly slow day at work, Dad told me a remarkable story about the history of hosiery. My father might have been a businessman at work, but he was a teacher at heart and loved sharing his stories and opinions with his three favorite students: my mother, my sister, and me. He began this lesson, as many teachers do, by asking a question: had I ever heard of Britain's King Ludd? Nope -- but now I'll never forget him.
"King" Ludd was not a king at all, Dad began, but just a half-witted stocking maker named Ned Ludd who worked in Nottingham in 1800. The Industrial Revolution had just introduced sophisticated textile machinery in the area, causing great distress when the craftsmen were dismissed and replaced by these new machines. Ned Ludd organized bands of rioters who dubbed him "King." Wearing masks at night, they smashed the new looms and frames in protest. By 1812 the riots spread throughout the country. Lord Byron even gave a powerful speech in the House of Lords supporting Ned Ludd and his followers. But in 1813 there was a mass trial. Ned and many of his supporters were hanged - -their arms bound by the very stockings that the new machines had produced.
I’ve been thinking about my father’s history lesson, especially since our own Information Age has been praised above all for its astonishing technology. Although the Ned Ludd episode has been forgotten in history, it did produce a new word in 1812 which is still used today: “Luddite”- -one who possesses a hatred of all technical innovation.
I am not a Luddite since I shall never take for granted, let alone disdain, the technological glory of creating this very essay on my iPad, enabling me to revise as I type with magical ease. And I rejoice in the technology of the "email blast" which allowed Darian to send these very words to all 4,000 of you simultaneously and instantaneously.
But there has been recent talk about the death of the printed book and its total replacement by content that will eventually be available only on an iPhone or computer screen. Now THAT thought has me feeling a bit like poor old Ned. One "futurist" has even stated that the book as we know it must soon die, since "smearing ink on dead trees is the last smokestack industry.” Really?
Am I simply wallowing in fuddy-duddydom when I become horrified at the thought that reading a book from a library or a bookstore or my own groaning bookshelves might be disappearing, replaced by scrolling at a screen? Is curling up in bed with an actual bound book going the way of the doornail and the dodo? Can't we celebrate the birth of a new technology without having to declare the death of an old one?
And yet only a Luddite would condemn a Kindle reader with its ability to enlarge and highlight your text and miraculously allow you to hold over a thousand books in your little hand. I am grateful that we now have choices as to our delivery method for reading pleasure.
And I admit that it is probably just the allure of my long-lost youth that kindles my nostalgia for those pre-Kindle days at my father's store. Most often, when I was bored at work (and was I ever bored at work) I banished the monotony by squirreling myself away behind a stack of hosiery boxes and reading. Granted, the book I'd brought in my junior high years probably concerned the mysteries of the Hardy brothers rather than those of the brothers Karamazov. Regardless, I was learning amidst the pantyhose that culture offers few satisfactions more complete than reading and finishing a really great book. To read is to tiptoe inside another's mind. No legs are required—just hands. And you need only to hold in them a digital text or the "smeared ink on a dead tree," and to possess an imagination ready to branch out joyously with each physical or virtual leaf turned.