Special Report

The Vandals Within the Gates

Anyone still prize rare books and reading?

By 12.27.13


A former Italian senator somehow came into possession of numerous tomes lifted in one of the most extensive rare-book heists in history. How could he be so illiterate to not know that people rarely read books anymore?

Crooks usually provide a clear window into what we value as a society. The best-stealer list features iPhones and Xboxes. It doesn’t feature books for the same reason it doesn’t feature Betamax. Americans have moved on, but not up.

Thieves didn’t put Borders out of business. Their indifference signaled its demise. Who swipes what is no longer bought?

Even where (the Internet) people still read, they don’t read. They skim, as Nicholas Carr demonstrates in The Shallows. We grab bits of information, like a search engine, but without the context. We are becoming like the devices we rely on: full of data, devoid of knowledge. After spellcheck made spelling atavistic, Google, a sort of Cliff’s Notes for everything, made reading so. “I don’t read books,” a philosophy major, Rhodes Scholar, and student body president of a large state university explained a few years back. Instead, he googles. “Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense.”

Since we suffer from a surfeit of attention deficit disorder, I’ll lay it out in 140 characters or less: Stupid is the new smart. When reading books ceases to make sense, our society ceases to make sense.

The bombardment of distracting sounds and images makes reflection, focus, and solitude — elements essential to good reading — difficult to achieve. This applies even to libraries. I write from one now, where the man across from me sleeps, a couple converses, and almost everybody else stays glued to screens. Two septuagenarians read the newspaper. The novels sleep undisturbed on their shelves. The DVDs jump off them. Why read the book when you can watch the movie?

Those under thirty know what “lol,” “omg,” and “hmu” mean. They generally don’t know what it means to diagram a sentence. Books fit into such a world as comfortably as your community’s used bookstore, which probably closed ten years ago.

Marcello Dell’Utri, that politician embroiled in the book-caper scandal, is merely dated. We’re ignorant.

Dell’Utri is an advisor to Silvio Berlusconi with convictions for tax fraud and mafia activities but not, apparently, for preserving antiquities. He allegedly helped place a college dropout boasting an embroidered royal lineage into the head librarian position at the Girolamini Library in Naples.

Marino De Caro, the alleged larcenist librarian who fooled experts by replacing a Galileo Galilei original with a forgery, awaits trial. Marcello Dell’Utri, who returned every book that he received from De Caro save one, remains uncharged in this case.

Dell’Utri got De Caro a job. De Caro got Dell’Utri some old books. Surely in Italy they still know what quid pro quo means?

Italian police recovered a thousand books with the library’s marking in a storage shed allegedly linked to De Caro and a few more at his house. Others had already been sold at auction. The bibliotheque’s security camera recorded De Caro leaving the library at odd hours with what appear to be boxes of books. These aren’t the sort of titles they allow you to check out, even when you are the head librarian.

How did such a cartoonish mountebank hoodwink so many learned scholars?

As it turns out, fairly easily. A parallel exists between pawning off modern forgeries as ancient curios, as De Caro did, and passing off your bookcase of leather-bound classics as proof of erudition, as Dell’Utri did. Both the lawless legislator and the diploma-less librarian are conmen of similar sorts.

Intellectuals read books. Poseurs display them. The place to collect books is in your head, not on the shelf. In the former, books come alive; on the latter, they lay deader than the trees from which they came. The intellectual stocking his shelf with untouchable first editions is the equivalent of the rock star stuffing his trousers with a sock. Book reading satiates the intellect; book collecting, the ego.

In a world with decreasingly few true intellectuals, passing oneself off as the genuine article isn’t a particularly difficult feat. The mannerisms (a ponderous scratching of the chin), jargon (sprinkle “social construction,” “commodified objects,” “problematize,” and “the other” into conversation), and even fashion (dress as though it’s winter in late spring) may convince others plying the same racket that you belong among them. Similarly, with few people actually reading old books, how is anyone supposed to know that they have gone missing?

Cultured refinement requires effort; a conspicuous exhibition of great books takes money. Saving, as Matthew Arnold put it, the best that has been thought and said depends on vocational labors from scholars; sacking the best that has been thought and said necessitates only counterfeit sheepskin and an invented pedigree. Ours is a pretentious civilization, in which it’s more profitable to project civilization than to embody it. Dell’Utri and De Caro understand this, which explains their success as charlatans.

In 455, the Vandals sacked Rome. In 2013, the vandals live within the gates — there, here, and everywhere.

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About the Author
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.