This question grows old, I agree, after we spent weeks addressing it on this very site. Still, a recent spate of articles has sent it chasing round my brain, so here we are again.
EXHIBIT A: “The Fate of the Book” in The Chronicle Review
Article One: William Germano’s provocative title “What Are Books Good For?” leads to the less provocative claim that even inside the “knowledge machine” of a digital text, the codex remains as a “ghost-like” presence. The book, in other words, once “freed of its materiality,” yet lives.
Okay, maybe I’m a little provoked. But hold that thought.
Article Two: “The Cult of the Book—and Why it Must End” by Jeffrey R. Di Leo.
Throwing around words like “cult” and “myth” is a dirty rhetorical gambit. But Di Leo does it repeatedly, which makes me want to just kick him in the shins.
In his favor, Di Leo argues that digital multi-media offers exciting prospects for hybrid forms that should be valued by the academy. Who could disagree?
But if Professor Di Leo wants to root out the cult of the mythic book, he’s going to have to hire meatier thugs than these three 90-pound weaklings: “Digital books are more affordable, accessible, and environmentally friendly.”
The Old One-Two-Three Knock-Out Punch, or What happens Your Opponent Brings His Own Strawmen to the Fight
More environmentally friendly? Having dispelled Di Leo’s cult-like myth before, I will repeat only briefly that e-readers are not made of pixie wings, and don’t run on dreams. In fact, e-readers are MORE environmentally destructive than mowing down trees. I’m tired. YOU look up the environmental and human cost of manufacturing, transporting, running and disposing of the hardware required for e-media. Multiply that by the speed of planned obsolescence. Then look up the data on the escalating CO2 emissions from server farms and weep.
More affordable? Affordability doesn’t end at the bottom of our pockets. It ends when we’ve counted all the costs. And costs to the planet (see above) are ultimately costs to our own well-being. Perhaps on his next sabbatical, Professor Di Leo might invest in a good course on ecoliteracy, and another on environmental justice.
More accessible? To whom? According to George Lucas’ Edutopia, half (HALF) the households in the U.S. have no internet access at home. How many of those families can afford reading gadgets? Globally, the picture’s even worse.
But Wait, There’s More
Here’s the kicker: Professor Di Leo writes that “Words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands than a Kindle or an iPad, but the words are the same.”
Well, yes, and if I scrawled Ulysses on Dublin walls with the rusty point of a two-penny nail, I could say pretty much the same thing: The “words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands…but the words are the same.”
Personally, I might enjoy reading Ulysses this way. Especially if it weren’t raining. But I would never suggest that the physicality of the experience doesn’t matter.
Because reading is not only an intellectual and imaginative undertaking, but a sensory one. The feel of paper, the heft of a tome, the font, the page size, the sound of turning pages, the smell of the glue, the look of the binding, the markers of space and of time (where AM I in the book? Two inches to go. Where was that passage? About ½ inch from the beginning, top of the left hand side).
How easily Germano and Di Leo make moot the material experience of the world. The experience of the body.
At least the third writer in the series, Diane Wachtel, has the decency to call the books on our shelves “little more than furniture.” At least upholstery has some oomph to it.
What I’m not saying and what I am
This is not an argument for the superiority of the printed book, which can only lead to the hurling of pies.
As one commenter to Germano’s column noted, “there’s a lot to be said for the way books can sensualize ideas, infusing them with color, image, the sound of pages sliding together…. These qualifiers give a life and personality to ideas, fixing them in our brains.”
How it All Ties Together, or Notes Toward a Theory of Everything
It’s no accident that Professor Di Leo, who so easily dismisses the value of touch and sight, is so unschooled about the physical world. Product of a Cartesian ethos, he may be doing the best he can.
I admit that the digital world makes many wonders possible. Like this virtual gathering right here. But it also has the power to move us even further away from the world of the bodily others who share the planet, human and non-human alike–at a time we can least afford it.
The world where we harvest the raw materials for e-readers is the same world that sustains us in all our physical reality and need.
So don’t tell me the ghost in the machine is the same as the living flesh. No matter how many scholars say so, I’ll never believe it. And if you send me a rusty two-penny nail, I’ll even scrawl my refusal on the wall.
This week’s links: Germano, “What Are Books Good For?”; Di Leo, “The Cult of the Book”; Diane Wachtel, “Books Aren’t Crucial, but Long-Form Texts Are”; other posts on the physicality of reading and paper books: here, and here; post on the relative environmental impact of paper books and e-readers; New York Times article on e-reader environmental impact.
Tags: body, Diane Wachtel, digital divide, e-books environmental cost, e-reader, environment, Jeffrey Di Leo, The Chronicle Review, The Fate of the Book, usfpool, what good are books?, William Germano