A Defence of the Book

A Defence of the Book

At a recent conference I attended, an apocalyptically cheerful spokesman for electronic learning and gadgetry prophesied the end of the book. From one of his many digitally endowed pockets he retrieved a device he said would soon replace our library. I seem to recall having heard this one before. On reflection, I realise that I have been hearing it repeatedly for the last four decades. I can’t help noting however that the book is still very much with us, while one Gizmo Gus after another is carted off to push up electronic daisies.

This particular enthusiast for all things speedy, simultaneous and multi-tasking, anything that flashed and bleeped and interfaced, appeared to have no interest whatsoever in what I in my quaintness still call knowledge and learning. He was a representative of that new and potent ideology which claims that it is not the internalisation of knowledge that should be the aim of education, simply the acquisition of techniques for effectively accessing it. In other words, the skills do not have to be ‘learnt’, simply located, downloaded, then stored for future use. As long as a student can find where the knowledge lies, and process it for the task presently in hand, then that, it would appear, is acceptable. This is cant, and dangerous cant too. I would like to explain why.

Real learning modifies the human being who undergoes it. We change; we grow; we see reality differently. If we don’t, then we have not, in fact, learnt: we have merely skimmed the surface of a learning subject. Learning is participatory, which is why in any text-based subject, reading is usually more educative than watching a DVD. The more passive the student can be, the more the information simply passes over the mind, rather than entering it. In one ear and out the other, as we say. But reading, serious reading, close reading, reading of the sort that I still teach in a department of English, cannot tolerate such superficial engagement. Surface contact with the text results in failure, and so it should. Reading involves the whole mind; it is a negotiation of meaning. It is demanding, and rightly so. Merely ‘accessing’ the text does not help.

A French professor of dromology (the study of speed) has pointed out that ours is the first civilisation in history which has a speed as its absolute. All the same, Einstein knew that a certain slowness was often required for learning and thought. He himself was a great ponderer. He stared at the ether for so long that one day it simply disappeared; it has never returned. Had he gone about his business more speedily, he would have simply left it in place, while he got on with his efficient multi-tasking. When my students and I close-read a piece of writing, we all have to slow down. We are discovering a richness in the text that cannot be appreciated if you’re merely flitting over it. Serious intellectual engagement creates its own timetable, and it is incompatible with any split-minded inattentiveness.

Two examples might point up the absurdity of the ‘access rather than internalizing’ school of modern learning. Imagine a surgeon who had not memorized his skills, since that was no longer required, but was nevertheless adept at accessing and downloading the necessary information, as and when. One would have to assume that the queue for his operating theatre would soon be dwindling. Imagine a musician, a pianist say, who did not internalize musical skills but once again knew where they could be digitally located and retrieved. How much enthusiasm would there be, I wonder, for his version of the Hammerklavier Sonata?

I probably use a computer as much as most people. It is not possible to function in higher education these days without constantly being plugged in. I have to deal with correspondence, which is almost entirely electronic. I also use on-line resources with some frequency, and am very happy to do so. And yet, however central the computer might have become in our lives, in a literary education, the book remains our main technological tool, and none of us should be bullied into apologising about the fact. The book represents one of the greatest technological innovations in history, and its fitness for its task, its versatility, its convenience, mean that it will surely continue well into the future. It is also a remarkably democratic technology, in educational terms. If a teacher is giving a power-point presentation, as we teachers are now being exhorted to do, at every available opportunity, then that teacher dictates what is available in the form of knowledge to everyone in the room. She or he presses the keys on the laptop that change whatever text or image is up there on the screen. She decides what I can see and when. But if I am a student and I have a book in front of me, then I can answer back. I can turn my own pages in my own good time, and remind myself of my own marginalia. ‘Excuse me, but I don’t agree. What you said about Dorothea in Chapter Five might well be true, but if you’d care to turn to Chapter Nine, I think you might find…’

Many power-point demonstrations are mechanical and halting, because the presenter or lecturer spends much of the time staring at a laptop screen, instead of engaging with the audience. In terms of teaching literature, there is also a limit to the usefulness of any visual material. I can have a picture of Milton, or Charles I heading for the scaffold, or Cromwell displaying his legendary wartiness, but sooner or later we have to buckle down and read Paradise Lost. The text in all its richness and difficulty must be engaged. Illustrations are always complementary to an accomplished literary work, never integral. Only by living with a text like Paradise Lost can I begin to understand that with the very first line

              Of man’s first disobedience…

I am hearing four sibilants. Already out of the vernal landscape of Eden, a snake has begun hissing. Having a black ball on a screen bouncing along those sibilants and bleeping really doesn’t help much.

Many of the most vehement advocates of new technology in education, as an alternative to books, are frankly advocating a novel species of illiteracy. One of Gizmo Gus’s more salutary statements at my one-day conference was this: ‘If we don’t do all this with the students, then they’ll do it without us.’ So why don’t we let them then? Should we really feel obliged to abbreviate our lecture notes into text-messages, for fear of seeming old-fashioned? One surely forgets at one’s peril that the original cutting-edge technology was an axe. We might afford ourselves some bleak comfort. Someone still needs to know how to read Paradise Lost, or any other literary text, with scrupulous attention. I can only presume that the students themselves realise this; otherwise they wouldn’t be turning up at university each year to study English. They’d all be over in the Computer Block, multi-tasking. 

-- Alan Wall (31/07/2007)

Readers Comments

  1. Chris Bowman says... Wednesday 01 August 2007

    "On reflection, I realise that I have been hearing it repeatedly for the last four decades. I can’t help noting however that the book is still very much with us, while one Gizmo Gus after another is carted off to push up electronic daisies."

    So tell me, when you first heard this forty years ago, did you do all your correspondence on your laptop computer, or access online resources rather than walk to the periodicals department of your nearest academic library?

    Whether you like it or not, the world has changed, and electronic data are not going away. To say that advocating electronic medium is "advocating a novel species of illiteracy" is alarmist hysteria. Computers are a tool, just like books. They are also a more flexible tool, as they do not date from the moment of production as books do.

    A romantic attachment to outdated technology is no way to move academia forward. Perhaps you should read Thomas Kuhn?

  2. Chris Bowman writes: "Computers are a tool, just like books. They are also a more flexible tool, as they do not date from the moment of production as books do."

    I think Chris may be having us on here. Though I augment my collection of books constantly, I haven't had to update any of my books ever. I have on my shelves books almost 200 years old, and it's still just as easy to get at the information inside them as they day the came off the presses.

    With computers on the other hand, if you don't keep your software constantly updated, if you don't have this week's storage mechanism, forget it. In fact, the never-ending need to update one's hardware makes it clear that computers and their attendant gizmos are very immature technologies indeed.

    Sure, I use computers, and every time I do I look forward to the day when the glitches that characterize them have been eliminated and they've become as easy and cheap to use as books are now and have been for several centuries..

    Thank you, Alan Wall, for reminding Chris and others that just because this week's product is shiny and new does not mean it is necessarily an improvement on what has come before.

  3. While I agree with the article on the whole, I think we have much less to fear than he seems to think. The technology mavens, equipped with iphones, three myspace accounts and a blackberry are not pursuing the same path as someone who is serious about reading and literature. I think the fear here is that because the mass population is going away from books towards technology, the study and enjoyment of literature will suffer. Well the mass population has never really been close readers to begin with. People develop the skills needed for jobs and move from there. Maybe at one point Dickens was a best seller, but he was read as a pulpy import, same as french novels. And while Bakhtin, etc... paid closer attention, your average reader was only thirsting for the newest installment. But those who are serious about literature have always paid closer attention and ultimately are partial to the book. Be it a fetish, or as I think and this article implies for valuable reasons concerning close reading. I am a young student of literature and no one I know who reads something beyond Harry Potter thinks all this nonsense gadgetry is the way to go, and its not like we have the money for it anyway as young artists and grad students. So sure your buisness men and officials will embrace iphones and black berries and hand held nonsense, but have you met a young writer, we are lucky if we can pay rent never mind afford those things. And the great thing about books is you can get them for free from a library, or cheap from any number of used bookstores. I would not pass the experience of reading a 1$ mass market paperback copy of Anna Karenina with the cover torn to shreds and the paper aged for some pdf file off of project Gutenberg. When you are young and falling in love with books, there's something romantic about holding it in your hands that flashy tech stuff will never replace. Besides how many readers or writers have you ever met who weren't a bit of a begrudging Luddite? Readers are born not out of being in step with pop culture and fashion, rather out of a feeling of dissatisfaction and that there's something more to life than what there piers have found in suits and ipods. As a young person, who is supposidely a part of this young tech generation, I think the book is perfectly safe. Have faith in us to identify and avoid materialism when we see it.

  4. Nicholas Murray says... Thursday 02 August 2007

    A related issue is the way in which the new (for us more mature folk but not for current students who have grown up with it from the beginning) computer culture has actually altered the whole landscape of the learning mind (is Susan Greenfield not meant to be researching this currently?) and had such far-reaching impact on the way people approach knowledge acquisition and artistic and intellectual experience (in the way Alan demonstrates) that we are barely beginning to quantify and comprehend the magnitude of the change.

  5. Nicholas Murray says... Thursday 02 August 2007

    A related issue is the way in which the new (for us more mature folk but not for current students who have grown up with it from the beginning) computer culture has actually altered the whole landscape of the learning mind (is Susan Greenfield not meant to be researching this currently?) and had such far-reaching impact on the way people approach knowledge acquisition and artistic and intellectual experience (in the way Alan demonstrates) that we are barely beginning to quantify and comprehend the magnitude of the change.

  6. I have read Kuhn, actually. The point I was making appears to have been lost on Chris Bowman.

    It was the prediction of the disappearance of the book, and the disappearance of the library, which I was mocking. I will continue to mock it. The book is a technology, an extremely effective one. It should not be jettisoned because it is deemed to be 'old-fashioned' by those whose primary interest is in fashion, rather than learning.

    I value computer technology, and could not function without it (here I am, after all) but I am yet to meet anyone who would rather read Paradise Lost on a computer screen, or read Dickens on a train from a laptop. Books work very well indeed for the purposes we still use them for, if we use them intelligently. That use is worth defending. That is the point I was trying to make.

    And, as Kuhn was well aware, you don't even have to plug books in.

  7. Martyn Everett says... Sunday 05 August 2007

    There is a considerable amount of wishful thinking when predicting the "death of the book" - much of it driven by a desire to control the consumption of text. Initiatives such as Google Book Search are offering "free text' as a way of creating and expanding demand for a new service - but many of the items that ought to be freely available as out of copyright are not placed on open access at all, but have a statement attached that they may still be in copyright. The next step will be to offer access to these items via a cash payment effectively creating a new form of "reproduction right" parallel to that which has evolved for printed images over the last few years. The creater of the work will not be paid but the institutional custodian of the text will be. As Public Libraries discard there older stock (as ts all on the net) so a new monopoly will be created.

    The fact remains, however, that there are huge swathes of our printed history still not digitised, and unlikely to be digitised in the foreseeable future, and curiously enormous effort is being poured into electronic books that mimic the functions of the book. What we are more likely to see is a transformation of publishing, with greater emphasis on "print on demand", smaller print runs, and longer periods in which books remain in copyright due to print on demand.

    One of the key battlegrounds in all this is the public library service - which could be reduced to being just another part of the entertainment industry - alternatively it could combine online access to digital resources, with the the library's traditonal roles as both collective memory and street corner university by ensuring the highest quality bookstocks.

  8. Homer says... Monday 06 August 2007

    No one recites my poems today...
    they just look in their "books."
    Foul beasts of paper and glue.

    It's all just data.

  9. I'm afraid I can't grasp what Mr Wall is referring to by the the ‘access rather than internalizing’ school of modern learning.

    My problem is that I don't believe the assertion that a conscientious student - or a surgeon, or a musician, for that matter - is any less likely to internalise what they read in an electronic format than what they read in a book. I would be interested to know what this belief is based upon. (And as for blaming PowerPoint - and by extension all electronic media - for educators' poor use of them, well - workmen, tools, etc.)

    Books are in essence a storage medium. They are a wonderful and aesthetically-pleasing medium, but they are a less efficient one than most electronic systems when it comes to retrieving factual data. A student reading Paradise Lost may have to reference several other books - a thesaurus, a concordance, a biographical dictionary, any number of referenced and referencing works - probably stored some distance away, quite possibly in inaccessible locations. Electronic storage and retrieval make such access to knowledge universal, near-instantaneous, and quite possibly free.

    What is getting under my skin about this post is that it is couched in terms of a high-minded respect for education and intelligence, when it is in fact a confused conflation of information with its medium, and a snobbish and reactionary attack on the democratic dissemination of knowledge.

    One of my greatest concerns about the future is that young people will not be taught the skills they require to benefit most from the wonderful tools that we are creating for them. With teachers like Mr Wall in charge, I despair.

    James Bridle

    (P.S. I have a Master's degree in Computer Science with Cognitive Science, and in my years at university I read a far, far greater number of books than most of the Arts students I know. I would urge a little respect for the "Computer Block" and the other scientific disciplines if you expect to get any in return.)

  10. Patrick McDonough says... Friday 10 August 2007

    For my part, the most convincing argument delivered in the original article is that of the "experience" of reading a book. I've tried electronic books and the "experience" of that technology comes no where close to that of the book in hand. I state this as someone who works at least half the day on a computer for business and correspondence. Not all advances in technology actually improve our "experiences". Some, at best, just change the method of delivery. Take for example, visual media. For all the time and money invested on technology, the best way to see/experience a movie is still in a theatre on a big screen.

    Sorry, but I'm still waiting for some technology to improve on a book.

  11. K. Benton says... Monday 13 August 2007

    I find this a fascinating discussion. I come from a mixed background, in which I voraciously read anything I could get my hands on throughout my youth, excelled in my English courses and then chose a different path for my career, majoring in Physics and Computer Science at University.

    I have a troubled relationship with both books and technology. That is, I've seen technology do wonderful things, but remain skeptical of it's vaunted universal curative properties. As for books, I love them deeply, but have long had difficulty with the very concern you illustrate; I often find it difficult or impossible to absorb much of the material. I find I can read a book, enjoy it immensely and within weeks forget much of what I had found so wonderful. This must be a failure in my method, or else a flaw in my brain, but the end result is that I must acquire new information (I won't call it knowledge) if not on a Just-In-Time basis, at least shortly in advance of when I will require it practically. For non-practical reading (by which I mean, I suppose, anything not related to my work or some specific short-term task), I often retain only general impressions, or images of particular scenes, but seldom actual passages or, say, the philosophies of each character.

    I have considered that there are ways in which technology might assist someone like me in absorbing what I read, apart from trolling Google and the various news groups for discussions relevant to the book, or accessing scholarly works dissecting or examining the work, neither of which are particularly convenient from my easy chair. Perhaps my use of the word "convenient" has already demolished any hope I have of convincing Professors of English that my arguments have merit, but I can't help but feel there must be a compromise, that it ought not be required of me to read each book at my desk, with my notebook and references at hand.

    In my pursuit of solutions, I've followed technology fairly closely, and am constantly on the lookout for something that meets all of my desires... thus far to my disappointment. I will not even consider laptops, pocket-pc's, PDA's or the like, as I find them inadequate in too many ways to discuss briefly. Instead, I'll confine myself to discussing those devices that seek to specifically emulate bound paper, under the general title of "eBooks". Now, I have a number of aesthetic issues with these devices, not least of which is a deep affection for the texture and smell of ink and paper, not to mention the heft and solidity of a bound novel. But attachment to the physical attributes of the books are perhaps not germane to the thread we're following here. To discuss, rather, the functional attributes of books, the most crucial element lacking in current books -- electronic and paper both -- is a robust mechanism for annotation, citation and cross-reference. These are simultaneously those elements that would, I think, most improve upon the classical book enough to make the transition to eBooks tolerable, and mitigate my feelings of aesthetic loss.

    Consider annotation, in which I might select a passage and write into the document a synopsis of the passage as I understand it, or a reminder to research it more thoroughly, or just an exclamation of joy because the author has so perfectly expressed an emotion or thought. This can all be done non-destructively, and stored right with the content of the book itself, which is not possible with normal books. Of course, I could keep a journal, and I know that many people do, but can't get past the overhead of managing it, not to mention the impossibility of searching it efficiently or easily linking notes with each other and finally, again, feel that keeping a pen and pad near me at all times while reading is burdensome to the point that I simply won't consistently keep it up.

    Well, for fear that I might continue writing for the rest of the afternoon, I won't go into depth on the remainder of the potential benefits I perceive, but perhaps can highlight my favorites. Consider books that :

    * contain cross-references to other resources that are specifically related to the current passage, page or chapter, accessible with a single tap of the pen,

    * the ability to join discussions on a text or a passage directly from within the context of the book,

    * the possibility that the author might release an explanation or further comment on a book, or section thereof, which could be downloaded automatically into the reader

    * automatically generated suggestions for further reading, based on the subject matter itself or comments from previous readers, and

    * such low-hanging fruit as an integrated dictionary and thesaurus with sensitivity to the era in which the book was written, and other language tools perhaps specific to the work or author (as with, for example, James Joyce).

    And of course all such devices will be capable of storing many books on a single small storage chip, the benefit of which ought to be clear.

    I don't in any way claim the inherent superiority of such a device to a true academic examination of a work of literature (or even a thorough reading of a technical reference or science text). Nonetheless I do believe that it would provide the ability for those without access to, or time for, such intensive study to get far closer to understanding than they might otherwise.

    And of course, by "they" I also mean "I". As I said before, my ability to retain the works that I read would almost certainly increase dramatically. In the meantime, I have two or three new novels I'd like to read, and one or two that it's time to work through again, in the hope that I'll finally remember them.

  12. Dave Gater says... Sunday 13 April 2008

    I love my computer, I love my books.
    I enjoy the tactile experience of going out, choosing a book and then sitting quietly reading it. Then my computer allows me to take part in (if I so choose) excellent debates such as this.
    I don't know why there has to be conflict, both are fantastic sources of learning and/or relaxation.
    I suppose though that if the power is off and the battery is flat a book may be the thing....but you can't read a book in the dark!
    Oh dear here we go again.

Leave a Comment

If you have not posted a comment on RSB before, it will need to be approved by the Managing Editor. Once you have an approved comment, you are safe to post further comments. We have also introduced a captcha code to prevent spam.




Enter the code shown here:   [captcha]

Note: If you cannot read the numbers in the above image, reload the page to generate a new one.