ROUEN, FRANCE—Béatrice Berceau, the planet's last literate person, died Monday, marking the end of an era. Berceau, widely renowned in her native France and around the world for her remarkable ability to decipher coded inscriptions of symbols printed on paper, was 98 years old.
"Béatrice's death has officially ushered in the Post-Literate Age," said Roland Habusch, head of Harvard University's Department of Sound Bites and Pictograms. "No longer will we as a species have access to the information stored in the bound paper volumes known to Béatrice and our ancestors as 'books.'"
Those who knew Berceau claimed that the elderly eccentric did not own a television, could not operate an ordinary fax-modem and neither left nor received a single voice-mail message in her entire life.
Berceau, authorities said, died late Monday after being struck by a car at an intersection near her Rouen home. Police attributed the accident to her inability to interpret the glowing red hand pictograph at the intersection's crosswalk, which replaced the "written" message of "Don't Walk" on most crosswalks in the early '80s.
"She just wasn't cut out for the modern era," said Berceau's granddaughter, Los Angeles-area video-game design consultant Lisa Hamilton. "But she was a wonderful woman. She always kept in touch, even though we were so far away, and she even sent us a card every week. I never had any idea what all those shapes drawn on them were supposed to mean, but the fronts of the cards always had such pretty pictures of France."
Described by friends and neighbors as a kind, quiet woman who often sat staring at indecipherable rows of symbols for hours at a time, Berceau dedicated her last few years to the preservation of so-called "classic" works, translating them into modern, non-written formats for future generations to enjoy.
MTV vice-president of project development Hal Mirsch, who worked closely with Berceau in her final days, said: "We are saddened by the death of this venerable, longtime 'reader,' even if we're still not quite clear what that word means. We are especially grateful for her pivotal translation work on our newest animated series, Albert Camus' The Stranger. The tale of a mysterious costumed hero outsider who travels from town to town battling the Xenophons with his turntable-based DJ powers, The Stranger will rock your way this fall."
"Without Béatrice's help," Mirsch said, "we never would have been aware of this 'Stranger' character and its tremendous potential as a licensed property, and we never would have been able to bring Mr. Camus' vision to the small screen."
Following Berceau's death, the New York publishing industry announced the closing of its last print-based publisher, The Béatrice Berceau Press, which for over 40 years specialized in books that Béatrice Berceau might enjoy.
Also hurt by Berceau's death is the Béatrice Berceau Book-Of-The-Month Club, a division of Time-Warner.
"Sadly, we no longer have a market for all the 'books' for which we have reprint rights," said Henry McGrew, president of the mail-order club which, prior to Berceau's husband's death in 1991, was known as the François And Béatrice Berceau Book-Of-The-Month Club. McGrew noted that the club's sales plummeted to an all-time low of two books last year, due largely to Berceau's increasingly poor eyesight.
With Berceau's passing, the world's many repositories of symbol-inscribed paper volumes, known as "libraries," have been temporarily closed. Authorities have already begun the arduous task of converting the libraries' printed materials—once considered precious storehouses of human knowledge and culture—back into valuable wood pulp. The libraries are expected to complete the transition to all-audio-visual format and reopen by spring 1998.
Persons wishing to express sympathies to the Berceau family are encouraged to send flowers, song-o-grams, videotapes, and CD-ROM and voice-mail messages in care of this newspaper, or e-mail them to www.B-Br-sO.com.