In Defense of the Book
The quality of education is closely connected to the quality of reading, a thing threatened in the age of screens. The question of book or Nook, of novel or Kindle, of ink or e-ink, is a real question these days. The dichotomy is based upon the difference between the physical and digital experience of reading—and it is a difference that can make all the difference in education.
Despite how individual judgments may lean, screens are by general judgment convenient, and therefore the tablet is the trendy way to read. While its convenience has not statistically caused an increase in reading books, it is making physical books a less common commodity. Of all the endangered things in the modern world, the book seems to be getting rather short shrift.
The shift from paper to pixels can compromise the educational experience of young people who are already compromised by screens. The reasons are not difficult to grasp. Nothing compares to the feel and smell and weight of a proper book. A book is reliable, tactile, and real. It is proportioned to the human body in a way that computers are not. The stuff of the digital realm is by nature mutable. The stuff of a book is permanent, or in any event enduring. Its printed pages are not subject to the whirlwind of copying, pasting, deleting, or remote modification. It is, in the end, more real because it is more concrete, more constant, and gives an experience that partakes more fully in reality—a preferable thing in a good education.
But, in any case, why discard the book so summarily? Books have not lost any argument, have they? There has not even been an argument. The problem is that technology always seems to get a free pass. Has anyone posed the question, “Are we sure that we as a society want to effectively abolish things like handwriting, chalkboards, encyclopedias, library stacks, and, for that matter, the book?” In the circles that count, there are no such questions and no such debates. Instead, society takes it for granted that if some new-fangled technology is new-fangled it must be better.
Whoever heard of getting lost in a Kindle? What is the draw, then? Is price the motivating factor? Perhaps, but cheaper is not necessarily better. The Brothers Karamazov is worth its weight and the space it takes on the shelf. Books need to be taken seriously if they are to be read seriously. They need to be valued, and therefore they should carry value. Or perhaps saving the trees is the reason? It is no argument either. The earth metals used to make e-readers and tablets are not only rare, but also highly toxic. Trees are a renewable energy source. The energy that goes into cooling fans and broadband servers is not.
A tablet may be fine for a sports update, a news flash, or an article like this, but should it be used for Homer or Shakespeare or Tolkien? The material and the medium should harmonize and bear some proportion to one another. Is there anyone who did not feel a sense of solemn and serene accomplishment re-shelving the tome that is David Copperfield? Can the same be said for one who reads Dickens’ glorious THE END and then powers down the screen? What makes Moby-Dick great is not that it is compact. It is great because it holds a cosmos within its covers; and the sheer weight of those pages, and the voyage through those sounding furrows is an experience in and of itself. The act of reading a good or great work should reflect in some real way what is at hand.
The physical interaction and engagement of annotation, reference, and even page-turning connect readers to the material through the medium far more than a device’s digital distance. Immersion in a book is essentially different from immersion online, for a lack of focus often accompanies the latter, which is a large reason behind any educational concern in this arena. The constant reminder that navigation is always possible easily hinders focused engagement. Modern personal devices are designed to distract and ensnare users in the Web. One could always be doing something else waiting to be done. Email is just a click away. Hyperlinks beckon. There is a nagging, incessant feeling to go faster. To skim. To surf. To scroll. Whereas the book invites one to stay awhile. To stop. To see. To study.
To read, or not to read: that is the question.
People no longer appreciate the mystery of the 2,000-year-old medium called the “book,” which may well be part of the current crisis in education. The mystery, notwithstanding, is not unappreciable. Books are good. They become like old friends. Books have a life of their own, and reading becomes a true joy when readers find their way into that life. Books interact, inspire, and intrigue—and are free of the frenzy of technology. Timeless literature simply does not sit well, feel well, or read well on a screen. The great and good works were written as books, and books they should be.
Furthermore, when a person takes the time to amass a library, filling rooms and lining walls with books that are known and treasured, that person becomes open to a profound discovery. Over the years, as those books are collected, read, referenced, marked, thumbed, stained, stacked, lent, or even beheld as a body, a deeper education can take place—the lesson of who the person is that assembled those books, what that person believes, values, and loves. Can a digital library of downloaded HTML’s do the same?
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