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Phil-osophically Speaking - January 14, 2011

A Farewell to Books?

It was not long ago when my cousin, Tim, a high school guidance counselor, groused to me about the arrival of the digital age and with it the impending extinction of the printed page. “I just love,” said Tim, “reading the morning newspaper while slowly sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee. For me those precious minutes are a little piece of paradise.”

I did not see an imminent departure from the world of print back then, but like the coming dawn I began to see the faint streaks of a strange light over the horizon — a harbinger of both a new and novel day. On my weekly commutes to the city, I saw a growing number of my fellow commuters with Kindles, which are books that appear on a screen with the mere touch of a button and vanish the same way just as quickly. EBook sales are now climbing with the feverish intensity of a mercury thermometer measuring a scorching heat wave. Presently, sales are hovering near the one billion mark and there are some marketing experts who project that in 10 years electronic sales will represent at least 80 percent of the publishing market.

Looking at our book-filled libraries and bookstores, one would hardly guess that such an eventuality is about to befall us. The shelves are bursting with books, periodicals and newspapers. But this is only a fading tease, for the further we move into the future, the more the printed word resembles a distant apparition, a ghost from the past. Virtually every measurable indicator is that the new technology will do to the printed word what indoor plumbing did to the outhouse.

What are we to make of this accelerating trend? The 20th-century French philosopher Jacques Ellul thought we ought to ask this about any new technology: “What values does its use foster?” And, “What is lost by using it?” This is difficult to determine for where there are no precedents there are no easy answers. Responding objectively to such an inquiry is difficult for me since I am passionate about books. It is not only because they provide an intimate encounter with the mind but paradoxically, in some metaphysical way, I am also physically attached to them. I like the way the covers of a book sensuously rest between my hands, the way the neat black print alluringly draws your eyes to the white page, the wispy freedom and physical sensation of lightly turning each leaf with your fingers connecting the reader intellectually and corporally with the unfolding narrative.

When I first visited the New York Public Library, one of the barometric centers of Western culture, I was awed by its grand, opulent architecture, its cathedral ceilings, the magnificent frescoes that adorned its wide, spacious walls and its palatial dimensions that encompassed an entire city block. But I was also dismayed that I could not browse through the aisles picking, here and there, at my leisure, from the myriad books that I imagined to be stacked on miles of shelves. Instead, I had the deflating experience of choosing a title and then waiting as the clerk retrieved it somewhere from its deep, secluded fortress. It seemed to me that browsing at one’s own pace, perusing and thumbing through the pages in the midst of more books than you know what to do with is one of the glories of rummaging about a library.

This pleasure with books is undoubtedly because I grew up with them. We are all products of our time and, to a large extent, should be. In another generation the experience with books, because of their diminishing importance, may not be communicable in the same exact way. Revolutions have a way of wiping the slate clean. When Johannes Gutenberg created the printing press, with its rapid and movable type, the currency of ideas that it mass produced and disseminated made it the most influential invention of the second millennium.    

The Gutenberg printing press rocked political and religious empires, democratized information, ignited an explosion of literacy, fostered nationalism and led to copyright laws, as well as a nascent middle class. It allowed books written by Martin Luther and Erasmus to be sold in the hundreds of thousands during their lifetime. The reverberations that have echoed from the printing revolution back in the early 16th century have shaped our lives to the present day.

It seems unlikely that the Kindle will kindle a similar revolution but that is not the crux of my reservations about the new technology. There seems to be a casual, almost cavalier approach to one whose reading universe is on the screen, whose content can vanish with an appalling suddenness. Print on tangible paper, embraced by tightly bound covers, invests words and ideas with a certain gravity and permanence. Books are real, a physical object that has contours and weight rather than the evanescent quality of books floating somewhere in cyberspace.  

A book is a self-enclosed entity that obliges the reader to focus exclusively on the subject at hand and does not, in itself, compete with other entertainments. Even a technological primitive like me knows how to multitask on a computer. Yet I have found that this carnival of choices precipitates a rude impatience when a quiet concentration should be cultivated. I’m afraid such advances, if they can be deemed that, may well vitiate the reading experience and turn our thought process into rush hour at Grand Central Station where our mind is more consumed with where we have to go than appreciating and understanding where we are.

Relevance and understanding is but slowly acquired. I have had few satisfactions greater than while reading a book to feel the chaos of ignorance receding from my mind like broken waves receding from the shore. These meditations may seem like the ululations of an irrelevant rhapsodist, a hopeless romantic disquieted by a drumbeat marching toward an uncertain future. Just one more Luddite whose blind affinity to only what he knows suffuses the world with an insufferable backwardness.

Perhaps, but then change does not always translate into progress and concern for the future does not necessarily mean an irrational distrust of the present. Like the philosopher Jacques Ellul, we need to ask ourselves not only what is to be gained from human ingenuity but also what might be lost. Electronic reading devices may well pioneer new horizons that inspire the intellectual imagination without diminishing the deeper consideration of things. I’m just not terribly optimistic about it. But then, again, maybe I’m just getting old.