In Praise of the Printed Book, Part 2

By Warren Farha

Guest Post

Continued from yesterday.

An increasing torrent of books and articles reflect on the Internet as The Great Distraction, and I’ve had the opportunity recently to read a few. The first I’ll mention is The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, by Mark Bauerlein.

Bauerlein is not saying that millennials—youth who’ve grown up in the Digital Age—are less intelligent than their predecessors. He is saying that due to the digital environment in which they live and move and have their being, they are working with a much smaller store of acquired knowledge, contrasting the dizzying quantity of information available online with that which has actually been embraced and mastered.

Bauerlein collaborated with former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia on the influential NEA reports Reading at Risk and To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, which combined careful research and a sense of urgency about the rapid decline of reading in all age groups in the United States.

The omnipresence of screens and immersion in texting and social media have steadily pushed aside time devoted to reading or attendance to serious music, theater, and fine art. Bauerlein warns:

Every hour on MySpace, then, means an hour not practicing a musical instrument or learning a foreign language or watching C-SPAN. Every cell-phone call interrupts a chapter of Harry Potter or a look at the local paper. These are mind-maturing activities, and they don’t have to involve Great Books and Big Ideas. They have only to cultivate habits of analysis and reflection, and implant knowledge of the world beyond.

As the researcher behind the Reading at Risk report, Bauerlein has the expertise to marshal study after survey after anecdote to back up his vision of the increasingly desiccated nature of youth literacy and general historical and cultural awareness. He sees it as a threat not only to the quality and workplace preparedness of graduates, but to the vitality and coherence of our communities and of democracy itself.

Whereas Bauerlein’s book focuses mostly on the young, a book published this past summer strikes different notes, no less alarming. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, is an extension of the author’s famous (or notorious) article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” published in 2008.

Carr, a media and technology analyst, began to worry when after “over a decade spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing” he had trouble reading a book or a substantive article. Carr explains, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr’s case against those who would seek to relativize the media of our reading becomes most passionate in his chapter, “The Church of Google.” In it we are told of Google’s self-described mission, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” which, we are told, will take about 300 years.

Google’s “Moon shot,” as one of its chief executives put it, is the Google Book Search—the effort to scan and digitize all the books ever printed and make them “discoverable and searchable online.”

The results frighten Carr, who warns, “The inevitability of turning the pages of books into online images should not prevent us from considering the side-effects. To make a book discoverable and searchable online is also to dismember it. The cohesion of its text, the linearity of its argument or narrative as it flows through scores of pages, is sacrificed.”

I ask myself why I find all this deeply saddening. Is it because I sell printed books and selling E-books holds no appeal? Is it because E-books threaten my livelihood?

I think I can honestly answer “no” (there are lots more immediate threats). I also reject what might be called the aesthetic objection to the electronic book (which I think can easily descend into sentimentality)—you know, acclaiming the beauty of physical books as objects, the way they smell, the way they feel, etc.

No, there is a more profound objection or resistance to the E-book, which, for lack of a better label, I’ll call theological.

I’ll just say it: E-books are a gnostic technology that nourishes gnostic tendencies. And I’ve been taught, and know historically, that gnosticism is heresy number one.

When we read physical books, the text is physically mediated in a delightful, infinite variety of ways. The word comes incarnate in ink and paper and covers. The word in E-books, I know, is also physically mediated, but it tends toward the virtual, and renders the medium immaterial.

Just as the Docetist variety of early Christian gnosticism taught that Christ only seemed to be human, so E-books lend a ghostly air to the screen presence of whatever text it displays.

I began by relating the deeply formative reading experiences books rendered, saying “the object and the experience they mediated are inseparable.” I can’t imagine saying the same about any electronic reading experience.

Yes, the electronic text is “there”—but just barely. There’s not very much “there” there. The incarnate element involved in reading has nearly disappeared, and our nature as composite beings of flesh and spirit—this nature for which Christ took flesh—is left strangely starved. Our physical natures, yearning for incarnate spiritual experience, are considered irrelevant.

There is no longer a sense of journey or pilgrimage through a story, as anyone who’s read a long text with delight or arduous sweat knows. The E-text floats in a boundless sea of nearly identical pages, and any sense of beginning, middle, and end has fled away. In a physical book, the text has particularity, to which we can relate even spatially.

How many times have you been looking for a sentence or a passage, and said something like “it’s on the right-hand page, about three lines from the top,” this memory immediate and precious to you?

The proponent of the digital book might run an electronic search of his text and immediately locate the sought passage—but is there a real sense of where it is in relation to the rest of the book? The book itself is marked by our journey through it—yellow highlighter here, coffee stain there, spaghetti sauce spattered on page forty-five. We yearn for physicality—it’s our created nature—and books satisfy.

We mark them, they mark us. It’s an intricate, beautiful physical/spiritual dance.

The object and the experience they mediate are inseparable. I might just as well have said that good books—good words incarnate—are sacramental.

Warren Farha is a lifelong, contented resident of Wichita, Kansas, son of a Lebanese immigrant’s son and a Kansas farm girl. He grew up in his father’s business, until a pivotal moment in 1987 led him into a new vocation of bookstore owner. The bookstore in mind was interdisciplinary featuring classic, perennially important books in literature, theology, history, the arts, and children’s literature, one that also brought his native Orthodox faith into wider contemporary intellectual and cultural conversations. Eighth Day Books is now almost twenty-five years old. Warren shares this endeavor with his beloved wife Chris, three grown children, and a host of past and present friends.

  • Michael Paulus

    Ebooks are material incarnations of texts. We need more theological reflection on how digital materiality and media shape us and how we shape it: http://www.spu.edu/depts/uc/response/new/2012-spring/features/the-end-of-the-book.asp

  • K W

    While I too love the particular materiality of printed books–and prefer it!–I can’t help but feel much of the argument in this 2-part blog is nostalgic, appealing to memories and a preference for the past. Is this different from the person who longs for the days of silent movies with live music, or the age of radio, or film cameras, or travel modes which seemed to put us more in touch with the physicality of our journey (is it theologically better to walk or ride a horse, for example, than to take a car or plane, where we cannot feel the ground or fresh air?). I also agree with Michael Paulus that ebooks have a materiality of their own, albeit a different one, that would be worth exploring further with an open mind. Readers have been skimming texts long before they became electronic, or relying on indexes to transport them to material of interest, regardless of the surrounding book; it happened “then,” it happens “now.”. Finally, I have to ask, why write this treatise as a blog rather than as a pamphlet? And if there is a good rationale for writing it electronically, might book authors/publishers also have good reason for choosing or allowing electronic distribution of their books.

  • Kate

    As someone who also prefers a physical printed book I liked this article. I’m glad there are still book stores where I can go and browse through the books, touch them, feel the pages. It’s as if they are speaking to me, calling out…read me, choose me.

    I believe my love of books comes from having such little access to books as a child. Once I started school there were books, yet I didn’t have any books and certainly don’t remember being read to as a child. I was starved for knowledge to explain the ‘world’ I lived in. The first book I remember treasuring and reading, from start to finish at age 12, was the King James version of The Bible, which I was presented with when I became an actual member of the church I had been attending since I was 5 years old. I still have some of the printed Sunday school material from elementary school age. I can’t throw them away. I plain old can’t do it. I touch them, hold them, and know there was something good while I was a child and that good was church, the people there who were teaching me, and the word of God, which I now have in many versions, including my original 50 yr old King James Version.

    As an adult I began buying books. I read voraciously! All kinds of genre of books (except horror). I love to read. I love the feel of a book in my hand. I can’t wait to turn to the next page and make another discovery in whatever book I’m currently reading. My house overflows with the printed word! I’m going to have to start sorting through my books and finding a way to hopefully pass some of them on to someone else to enjoy. It’s not a task I want to do, but rather of a matter of no space to add more bookshelves.

    I read to my 3 daughters when they were children. They had a constant supply of books while they were growing up and I am certain that is a big part of what helped them all be successful students. All 3 of them love to read and love the feel of the printed page. I must admit the 2 younger ones do read some e-books these days, as they are grown and part of that digital age. They still ask for printed books for Christmas and birthday presents, or gift cards to book stores.

    I believe each person should have their choice as to how they read their books, whether printed or e-book, yet I hope those who read e-books take the time to experience the difference by reading printed books also. For me nothing stretches my mind as much as a good book and the printed book is what I choose. They have helped me learn more than I ever though I would learn as I didn’t have the opportunity for education beyond high school. They have enriched my life and touched my soul. What more could I ask for from pieces of paper with words printed on them?

    Kate E.

  • http://viz.tumblr.com Viz

    Thank you for the thoughtful piece. Permit me to articulate a concern. And I state this as an English major and lover of printed books.

    That the electronic text is a Gnosticizing agent that “nourishes gnostic tendencies” is becoming a fairly common sentiment, expressed in both Christian and non-Christian terms. The line of thought strikes me as imprecise. Typically, what is framed as a printed word/ e-word question is really more of a page/screen matter.

    That is to say: I believe the real crux of theological objections to e-books, such as the author here articulates, is not differently-mediated words so much as the change from screens to pages. Seemingly, the physical PAGE is sacramental/embodied, whereas the electronic screen has “a ghostly air” and is “a boundless sea.”

    I rarely hear the criticism, “e-book pages are anti-sacramental.” Perhaps e-book critics tacitly sense the absurdity such a remark entails. But in the category of words we can freely invoke the Word, incarnation, doctrines, and awful heresies. Heresies! Follow the trail of weighty analogy far enough and soon elocutions of manifest doom begin to roll off one’s keyboard in pleasant melody: “There is no longer a sense of journey or pilgrimage through a story…”

    But the matter of pages and screens is a realm of pretty humble considerations, e.g., what do the different types of screens have in common both with pages and with other types of screens? What do screens and pages do differently? Etcetera.

    Labeling heresies is fun! But let us not mistake matters of use, preference, and even cultural value for theological error.

    Again, thanks for the piece.

  • Erin M.Doom

    This piece was originally presented at Eighth Day Institute’s inaugural Eighth Day Symposium in January of 2011. The entirety of the text is available in Synaxis 1:1. Copies are available at http://www.eighthdayinstitute.com where there is also information about the fourth annual Eighth Day Symposium in January of 2014 on “Constantine, Christendom & Cultural Renewal.”


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