The October 1st issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education contains three articles concerning the demise of the book. Jeffrey Di Leo argues that the modern academy ought to move zealously from a book-based culture to a digitial-based one. William Germano cleverly makes the “case” for books, all the while arguing that their particular form is less relevant than what is being transmitted. Finally, Diane Wachtell attempts to desacralize the book, arguing that the method of transmitting words (on paper, on screen) between author and reader is insignificant when compared to the form of transmission (narrative, or not). Readers on the Porch might be interested in weighing in on the fate of the book. The debate reminds me of an old cartoon I have where monks are seen protesting outside Gutenberg’s Print Shop holding signs such as “Your Presses Depress Us” and “Stop The Presses: Save a Monk’s Job.”

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.

5 COMMENTS

  1. It seems what we have here are three perspectives of a disembodied lust for efficiency, some drab, utilitarian argument that we can somehow defend the worth of words without needing much to dabble in or weigh ourselves down with their physicality. Of course society is not predicated on the book, and we can certainly, as modern science is ever proving, extract the word from the Word – “what is being transmitted” – and, if we so please, transmit it through intangible bits right into our brains. But is this beautiful? Is there not some value to the narrative which is, though of the same substance, also distinct from the “mere message”? Can we cast off the incarnation without casting off also the essence being incarnated? I think these authors are suffering a far too Benthamist understanding of literature if they are comfortable with statements like “the method of transmission is insignificant”. This is carelessness.

  2. Digital storage is a marvelous thing. But despite all the power of digital media, I just can’t abide the idea of having to rely on digital devices to read. All it takes is an EMP or two and the whole enterprise is electronic scrap. The book will never die for this reason alone. How we can we entrust our most treasured works of literature to a medium that is utterly dependent upon electricity and the whims digital rights management?

  3. One such value to print literature and books is their traditioning. Nothing excites me more than a good, used book. The occasion to play the role of voyeur into someone else’s interaction with the material you’re reading is entertaining and insightful, and on a grander level, reading such a book handed down by a loved one is not simply an enjoyment, it is intimate and beautiful.

    This all becomes apparent when you begin to scratch the surface of that fact that literature and story contain a value that is not simply present in the message itself. With the spoken word it was, among many things, the peculiar mark lent it by each teller and telling. With printed word it is in part that lent to it by the readers. It’s also the interaction with the medium itself — it is rife with limitations (you can only fit so much onto a page, afterall…) which remind us knowledge is not merely some power to be absorbed ceaselessly and systematically, and frictionlessly into the mind. It is a participation. We are reminded of this when we recall that the Latin root of the word “intelligence” means to peer between the lines, to immerse oneself into the substance.

    For we Porchers, there is a keen awareness of the fact that we are too obsessed with speed and efficiency in this age, and too disinterested in questions of scale and sufficiency. The fact that you cannot search for a string of words in a book is often frustrating, especially when you’ve read it before and you “know that it’s on the verso of a page somewhere in this section here…certain of it!” but lo, it eludes you, and you must read through to find it. And what beautiful passages you find along the way of which you had completely forgotten! There is no proof that it is a bad thing to have to read through to find what we want. In terms of scale, it offers some defense against our tendency to read things out of context. As to the sufficiency of digital media, it may allow us to access and process more information, more quickly, and more efficiently, but aren’t we already too inundated with information as it is? Would being forced to slow down (and here we are on the topic of scale again) be such a bad thing? Not to mention the fact that you can’t jot notes into the margins of your computer screen without running into some costly regrets, or write a charming message into the front of a gifted work to a friend if it is sealed magnetically inside of a plastic disk… something which makes books infinitely valuable possessions.

    Charm should not be understated. The reason life is worth it has very little to do with success rates and efficiency. It has everything to do with the unappraisable value of imperfection, limitation, peculiarity and unpredictability… the recognition that if we were perfect and omniscient and omnipresent(the apparent goals of this age), nothing would astound us, and we would have nothing to say to one another. God’s creation of this great world was an act of love, not business. We create for the same reasons. Woe to he who forgets this.

  4. They should tell that to my students. If I distribute readings via .pdf for a course, and the printers are down on campus, they come to class with red bleary eyes lamenting the hours they have spent staring at a screen. Woe to the professor who tests the eyes of his students.

    The above comments sound good to me.

  5. I have yet to be convinced that even those who grew up using computers can read something carefully and thoughtfully online. I keep asking both graduates and undergraduates whether they find it possible to do a careful reading of, say, Plato’s Republic online. Most tell me that for close reading they still want to read paper. The one undergraduate, in particular, who said he did close reading online is, I’m afraid, someone I’m not convinced knows what close reading is.

    And perhaps I should give the additional example of Anna Karenina, because this requires a different kind of reading than the Republic.

    Joshua, I agree with everything you say, and you say it well, but, please, no verbing. “Traditioning” and “gifting”?

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