Briefly Noted: Piper, Daniels, and the Future of the Book

When it comes to reading serious books, Americans set low standards and consistently fail to achieve them. I’m not saying that Americans don’t read. Some of them do. (Who could deny that US Weekly has not enabled Americans to bring depth and import to the subject of celebrity clothes, hair, and makeup, and to the intricacies of the Pitt-Jolie marriage?). But we tend not to read the great books or the serious books. And now the question arises as to whether “the book” will survive at all, at least in the form of a hard copy text with covers and pages in between.

Of the scores of essay and articles recently written on the topic, two have piqued my attention. I’ll offer a summary of the two (one from The Chronicle Review, the other from The New Criterion), and then a brief response:

 “The Past, Present, and Future of the Book” by Andrew Piper[1]

 “What would the world be like without books?” This is the question Piper asks to introduce his essay, “The Past, Present, and Future of the Book.” From Origen’s Hexapla in the 3rd-century to an idea of a “book in a can,” a student project from McGill University, people have dreamed or speculated on the possible mediums through which we might deliver the contents of a “book.” As Piper says, “ever since its inception, it seems, we have been dreaming beyond the book.” With the dawn of e-books, tablets, and cell phones the size of small phone books, e-reading is the newest medium, the latest dream “beyond the book.” Piper argues for a balanced approach in reading: welcome the reality of e-reading but not at the cost of the book.

Books are part of us and, for that reason, Piper claims we ought to think well about how we read.  “Books have been important to us not just as vehicles of mental transport, but because our interactions with them span so many domains of sensory and physical experience.” Thus books make us consider the kinds of experience we have through reading them. One of these experiences is the redundancy of ideas and information that inherently belongs to human communication. Piper states redundancy “[is] not something that only belongs to ‘primitive cultures; it is a basic condition of communicative reality, of producing mental understanding.”

This notion of redundancy is integral to Piper’s argument, for both mediums of reading–hard copy books and e-readers–build upon and stem from redundancy. He states, “The significance of redundancy for human communication is to my mind one of the most persuasive reasons why the printed book should still matter to us today. But it is also a compelling argument for the importance of new forms of electronic reading.” That is, both forms of reading communicate ideas, true or false, from one human to others, and both do so by utilizing information and ideas from previous writings.

Piper then claims that these different types, or mediums, of written communication have a qualitative not just quantitative effect. “The aggregation, and not the singularization, of communication is the condition of more complex thought.” This inevitably means that there is not one medium of written communication that trumps all others. Piper concludes: “We may need to put down the book from time to time, but we should make sure not to let the computer become the new book. The universal medium, like the universal library, is a dream that does more harm than good.”

 “Loss & Gain, or the Fate of the Book” by Anthony Daniels[2]

 In every revolution the new sweeps away (in varying degrees) the old. With the dawn of the digital revolution the question is whether the printed book will be the old thing swept away by the new. This question is the topic of the article “Loss & Gain, or the Fate of the Book” by Anthony Daniels. As self-professed book lover, something in between a bibliophile and bibliomaniac (p. 5), Daniels explores his own feelings about and desires for the digital revolution. In sum, he sees the future–printed books and bookstores decreasing and e-books and online bookstores increasing–becoming the present but argues that the printed book ought to survive through this change. The old ought not be totally swept away in and by the new. For, as his title indicates, “every gain is also a loss” (p. 9).

The article explores the nature of the gain(s) and loss(es). One of the losses is the reality of “deacquisitioning” in libraries across the world. Daniels tells us that he has learned from booksellers that public institutions often get rid of or destroy books, even rare (valuable) books, that are willed to those institutions, to the shock and sadness of book-lovers such as himself. A cause for “deacquisitioning” is a matter of supply and demand: “If they [library patrons] want Dan Brown rather than the Summa Theologica, then that is what libraries should carry. The customer is king” (p. 7). (One is not slow to think that this might have something to do with the “customer is always right” mentality that is reshaping the way such institutions educate students, i.e., customers.) Another cause of “deacquisitioning” is the need libraries have for space on their shelves. Though the digital revolution is underway, publishers have not yet totally ceded their ground and the human interest in knowledge is still strong.

Nevertheless, Daniels observes that the times are ‘a changing.’ He writes, “it is indisputable that the half-millennial hegemony of the printed page in intellectual life is now coming to an end” (p. 7). He cites the decline in newspaper and printed magazine subscriptions. (For example, Newsweek recently announced the end of its print magazine. All its content is now online: read about it, online, here.) Moreover, recent studies show that children spend less time reading now than a generation ago. Information and entertainment are now delivered via screens like the one you’re reading now. The studies found that those who spent more time on such screens than reading did worse academically, but this does not prove that digital reading/viewing is the cause of worse performance (see p. 7). The way we think seems to be changing with the way we read.

The question, then, is what to do. What should book-lovers and screen-lovers alike do? Down the line of supply, what should publishers do? Daniels argues that whether or not the printed book survives, he is “firmly of the opinion that it ought to survive, and nothing will convince me otherwise” (p. 9). Daniels believes this, perhaps against the trend, because books are more aesthetically pleasing than screens (p. 8) and, more significantly, it remains to be seen how digital everything will positively shape human character. “A deterioration in human character consequent upon the demise of the book will be, for the inveterate reader, an apologia pro vita sua” (p. 7). (To wit, how many men go from reading a theological blog in one hour to looking at porn in another hour? While not the cause, has digitized everything not made this easier?) Finally, the human imagination has been stirred for many years by way of reading and writing books–connections not known become manifest when one reads a book about a new person, place, or thing (especially if that person, place, or thing deals with God’s kingdom). To summarize, Daniels does not argue for the cancelation of the Internet or all things digital. Rather, he argues for a chastened view of the digital revolution, and a hearty respect for and enjoyment of the book.

A Brief Response

 Nothing makes my heart beat faster than fellow bibliophiles offering some hope that hard copy books will maintain a place in America’s social and cultural life.  However, I’ll take a stab at being even-handed, and try to note some positive features of each format.

I’ll start with e-books. One of the foremost benefits of digitization is the fact that e-books can be distributed instantaneously (and relatively inexpensively) to anybody on the globe who has a computer or some sort of e-reader. This fact has positive implications for people, reading centers, and churches in the developing world, which are now able to build a library quickly and without an inordinate amount of physical space. Second, travelers might enjoy the fact that they can pack “loads” of books into their e-reader without their luggage or carry-on being weighted down by hardcopy. Third, publishers like the fact that they can make trial runs of books without heavy printing press costs. Fourth, one’s library is less subject to destruction by fire or flood. Fifth, it appears that e-readers will be more friendly toward earth’s resources. There you have it—my begrudging acknowledgement that e-readers might be beneficial.

As for hard copy books, I’ll start by saying that I like the look, the feel, the weight, and even the smell of a well-bound book. I prefer that experience to that of holding a cheaply made but expensively priced plastic e-reader. Second, I like to interact extensively with the academic books I read and I do so by taking notes in the margins, underlining a pencil and ruler (nerdy, I know). This is more easily and pleasingly done with a physical, material pencil. Or so I assert. Third, I never need to “charge” my hardback Modern Library edition of Augustine’s Confessions, Hackett’s Dialogues of Plato, or Akin’s God on Sex.  Fourth, I can build a physical library in my office or home which allows me to have discussions with my wife and children, or with guests and neighbors, about the books displayed. A library display is a way of saying what one thinks is important to read, reflect upon, and discuss. Fifth, the existence of hard copy books allows me the pleasure of browsing at Barnes & Noble or, even better, a used bookstore.

One final note: Because God the Trinity consists of God the Father (speaker), God the Son (Word), and God the Spirit (receptor), and because God has created us as lingual beings and has revealed himself to us through human language, we are a people who care about the written word. We care about the written word in general, but more to the point we care about the written word of God. Because God has spoken to us in the written word, (1) we want to make that word available to persons from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Hopefully the digital revolution, together with traditional hard copy books, can help forward the process of making the word accessible universally. Further, (2) we want to work to reverse the current Western trend because, as John Piper writes, “when one moves away from reading, one moves away from a precious, God-given, edifying, stabilizing connection with God’s written word.”[3]To the extent that e-readers help to reverse this trend toward non-literacy, I’ll be profoundly grateful.

[1] Andrew Piper, “The Past, Present, and Future of the Book,” in The Chronicle Review (November 9, 2012): B14-15.

[2] Anthony Daniels, “Loss & Gain, or the Fate of the Book,” in The New Criterion 31, no. 3 (November 2012): 4–9

[3] John Piper, “Missions, Orality, and the Bible: Thoughts on Pre-, Less-, and Post-literate Cultures” (accessed Nov 16, 2005 at the Desiring God website).