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.