Some years back, Microsoft assembled a team to produce a device that would improve on the book, effectively making it obsolete. After much toil, however, the company is said to have lowered its target to making an electronic book that would read as clearly.
The Microsoft Reader, one of the first e-books, was the outcome in year 2000, but an important point had been underlined (in ink). It wasn’t going to be easy to displace the book.
The book’s elegant simplicity is perhaps its greatest strength. Sophisticated devices are constantly being developed to perform the functions of the old things with more efficiency and ease (hundreds of books can now be contained in a single e-reader), yet the book has remained stubbornly anchored in our culture.
David Strong, professor of philosophy at Rocky Mountain College and author of “Crazy Mountains,” tells us, “To read well, you have to develop a high level of skill for reading. You can’t just read Kant without help.”
“There is a symmetry which is demanded by a book,” said Strong. “You are in an active relation with the text.” Philosophers of technology like Strong advocate the preservation of these kinds of focal, skilled practices in a modern world that seems to be eroding them.
Many still prefer to read books, the physical things themselves, never mind the wave of Nooks, Kindles, Readers, etc., that have lately washed over us. And if we read less, many still buy books to decorate their shelves. We like the idea of bookishness.
My own enthusiasm for obtaining and beginning books far outstrips my discipline to finish them. My parents are the same. Their house is lined, in some rooms floor to ceiling, with books that haven’t been cracked since their first perusal at a used book store or Barnes & Noble. Yet their presence is a constant promise of future learning and enjoyment, something solid.
Another attraction of the book, a finite object, is that of climbing a mountain you can see the summit of (however far off). The infinite nature of the internet creates endless distraction and may stunt deep concentration on any one thing, but the book is something scalable. It is perhaps easier to become engrossed in a book than in things on the web where one item leads to another ad infinitum.
Yet considering what a book meant to Western society during, say, the Middle Ages (how jealously those monks guarded their volumes) and what it means now to our own society (many young scholars today actively encourage their dogs to eat their textbooks), it is plainly not the same thing, despite what even the most outspoken proponents of the printed word have said.
For better or worse, the book is no longer the sole depository of culture and civilization.
The internet, computers and digitization in general have - in the last 25 years - fundamentally changed the character of our world and fulfill many of the functions that books alone could once provide.
But newspapers still plod along; glossy magazines still line checkout aisles; and books, too, continue to be printed (even, occasionally, read) despite what even the most confident arbiters of modernity have prophesied.
Libraries – those increasingly anachronistic edifices – continue to be funded, too. We apparently feel that books and the culture surrounding books are things that we do not want to give up, even in the face of a flashy and exciting digital world.
Now, a decade into the new millennium and a new Parmly Billings Library on the horizon of possibilities (a $13.4 million bond issue is slated for November), the question seems to be: Which is it? Print or pixels? Do we want a library or a computer lab? How should we, the taxpayers of America, at the tail end of a recession and during a time when our leaders are having an inordinate amount of trouble balancing the budget, be spending our money?
Bill Cochran, director of the Parmly Billings Library, thinks we may be asking the wrong question if we are still thinking in terms of either-or.
“It’s a false dichotomy to think that it is either books or computers. When a millennium of our culture’s history and knowledge is in the book, you aren’t going to suddenly cease needing books, if ever,” Cochrane said. “Early internet users added the internet in the same way that another generation continued with newspapers when television came. It wasn’t one or the other.”
Indeed, Borders arguably went under recently because of this sort of tunnel vision. When Barnes & Noble was expanding its online marketing and developing its own e-reader, the Nook, Borders was funneling money into brick and mortar. People apparently want both.
The myriad developments of science and technology in the last century have been gifts on countless levels (medicine, computer technology, science) but many have begun to question the implications of an increasingly wired world, implications that may give us pause about the idea of discontinuing libraries and the culture of books. What is gained and what lost in the digital transition? Are we losing touch with reality?
We at least know that it isn’t simple obscurantism to be cautious about an excessively digitized world.
South Korea, often referred to as the most wired country in the world with its highest per capita broadband reach, has resorted to compulsory counseling centers and boot camps for its internet-addicted youth. Many have become so addicted to their online games and avatars that they forget to eat, drink, bathe.
A number of deaths have occurred. Some have dropped dead right in the middle of computer cafes after marathon gaming sessions. In May 2010, one young couple let their 3-month-old daughter starve to death while caring for a virtual child for much of the day.
“Technology has a tendency to disengage and deskill us,” Strong said. “We are not joiners so much anymore, of bowling leagues or many of the things we used to do. We have Facebook but less face to face.”
Isolation is certainly a tangible result of digitization in our culture and not only physical. Ideological tunnel vision is also a danger.
“The internet is a kind of mirror,” Strong said. “People can just follow the stuff they already think. But as humans we need to meet strangers and encounter the strangeness of the world as Odysseus did in the Odyssey.”
Of course, moderation is key. The healthiest food in the world can suffocate people who eat too much, and digital media can be a little like the candy in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” It’s hard to stop once you’ve started.
Brent Roberts, director of the Montana State University Billings library, thinks modern libraries can be of service here.
“People tend to think of a library as just books,” he says. “In reality, there is much more information than is physically here. There are info databases, internet access and information professionals to teach students information literacy. We can help people find what they need.”
A search on Google, after all, can turn up millions of hits, most of them useless. And search engines are as susceptible to big business and money influence as Congress is to lobbyists.
The very top results are decided not by relevance but revenue – that is, by who has it. This has lead to curiosities like racist sites coming up first in searches for Martin Luther King.
There is a definite need for guidance in the search for relevant and credible information, something libraries have a long tradition of providing.
The culture of books and libraries, then, is perhaps something we need to ground and stimulate ourselves.
“Bozeman is making a statement with its new library,” said Strong. “They are saying yes, we do value books and community and these are the things you will value by coming here.”
In his book “Real American Ethics,” Albert Borgmann laments: “Most of the public places of recreation and celebration we owe to our great-great-grandparents.”
Mr. Borgmann also draws our attention to what he calls the Churchill Principle, which he takes from a warning Winston Churchill made when England was building a new house of Parliament after the old one had been destroyed by the Luftwaffe. What Churchill said was, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
These questions about the structure of our society are nothing less than moral questions. What we shape will turn around and shape us.