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The point of the story is that civilization has been destroyed by an atomic war and the few cultural artifacts the old man named Doctor Jenkins has managed to save are priceless treasures. Once they are worn out, there will be nothing at all left of civilization. The story is intended to remind readers of their cultural riches and of the growing danger of losing them. All that is left, as far as these men know, are four books and a dozen old-fashioned vinyl 33-rpm phonograph records. Portable phonographs such as the one treasured by Dr. Jenkins were very common at the time the story was published. They did not need electricity but had to be wound up so that the turntable would be activated by the unwinding spring just long enough to play one or two records. That kind of record-player was essential because there was of course no electricity anymore. The books are a complete Shakespeare, the Bible, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and Dante's entire Divine Comedy. Evidently Doctor Jenkins chose large books to provide a maximum amount of reading material. The author does not specify the titles of all the music albums. But the three visitors listen with delectation bordering on rapture as he just reads the jackets one by one.
Slowly he read out the titles, and the tremendous, dead names of the composers and the artists and the orchestras. The three worked upon the names in their minds, carefully. It was difficult to select from such a wealth what they would at once most like to remember. Finally, the man who wanted to write named Gershwin's "New York."
But the youngest member of the group objects. It seems obvious that Gershwin's impressionistic musical picture of New York, with all its lights and movement and comforts and glamour, would be too painful to hear because the city itself no longer exists. It was a prime target.
The purpose of the meeting is a social gathering in a wasteland where there is nothing else for the cold, hungry survivors to do but huddle together for warmth and companionship; but it is also a desperate attempt by four educated men to try to hold on to the last remnants of their civilization. The books will survive for a long time, but the records are getting worn out. There are only three steel phonograph needles left, and undoubtedly the portable phonograph will soon break down. Outside, the prairie is practically devoid of vegetation, and the sky is covered with sickly clouds filled with radiation. The story was published in The Watchful Gods and Other Stories in 1950, when the Cold War was beginning and it seemed to most people that an atomic war between the Soviet Union and the United States was inevitable. Both nations were stockpiling atomic weapons as fast as they could make them.
There were many "atomic holocaust" stories and novels written during the Cold War. One best-selling book was On the Beach, a novel in which Nevil Shute describes the type of war which would have left the kind of aftermath depicted in "The Portable Phonograph." According to the eNotes study guide for Shute's novel:
The war apparently was of very short duration and not much is known about it, save for the sketchy information Dwight Towers brings to Australia. No one is sure who dropped the first bomb, but there were about 4,700 bombs dropped in all. No one knows who dropped the cobalt bomb that released the deadly radiation cloud drifting steadily southward. Shute does away with the notion that people are too sensible or rational to risk a nuclear war. He says the war was caused by nuclear proliferation, with every country amassing a stockpile of atomic weapons. From there it was inevitable that all the bombs would one day be used.
It is significant that the owner of the precious books, records, and portable phonograph cannot even trust his three visitors. He suspects that one of them may come back and try to steal his treasures. The war may have wiped out most of humanity, but it has not destroyed the part of human nature that causes human conflicts.
In the rifts of clouds, the Doctor saw four stars flying. It impressed the Doctor that one of them had just been obscured by the beginning of a flying cloud at the very moment he heard what he had been listening for, a sound of suppressed coughing. It was not nearby, however. He believed that down against the pale alders he could see the moving shadow.
Doctor Jenkins goes to sleep in his crude bed clutching a piece of lead pipe.
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