Why Do Books Matter?

. . . Many people have concluded already that they don't. If you have concluded that they are irrelevant and old-fashioned, you probably will not be open to this discussion.  I encourage you, nevertheless, to have an open mind.

I’m a librarian and a book person (who’d have thought?) and therefore probably against the grain of American culture right now.  Books have been enormously influential in my life; they gave me an outlet, vision, and ambition when I was very young, and (some of them) have continued to challenge, delight, and astound me ever since.  Some books I count as old friends, and its a diverse lot: Lucretius, Søren Kierkegaard, Frederick Buechner, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor, Robertson Davies, Nora Ephron, Peter Brown, P.D. James — probably my educational and professional background shows there,  and some (like Brian Greene) I don’t understand very well.  I continue to read both printed books and digital texts; my current project is John Eliot Norton’s Bach: Music In The Castle Of Heaven.

To sum up a counter position: A “book person” is an anachronism: the world is digital, information moves at blazing speed, and care, nuance, and precision are luxuries of the past.  Readers have become users; teachers have become suppliers, and students have become customers.  The competition for attention drowns out the sustained attention any book requires, and the mark of the contemporary is multi-tasking, even though humans have been shown to do that very badly.  Instead of nuance, we have media scolds and bludgeons; instead of discussion we have talking points and position papers; instead of reading we have scanning or surfing.  Is it any wonder that we wind up with in a bitterly contentious, polarized society marked by increasing, sharp differences between the very rich, the poor, those caught in the diminishing middle, —where everything is on the market, and humans are either the customers or the product?  Disruption is the word of the moment, nevermind whether it is a well-establish and solidly argued social good or simple mediocrity —that it’s disrupted is enough to draw the line between the tired old and the shiny new.  Aaron Bady’s sharp questioning of Clay Shirky reveal how possible futures become taken for inevitable outcomes, and the slippery proposition that those outside any institution, profession, or work are bound to understand it better than its practitioners.  “Open is open” seems to end all discussion, period.  It is alleged, if you are part of “closed” (read “old) system, you couldn’t possibly understand.

Printed books are an “old” format bound for disruption, right?  Turns out: not so fast.  People continue to want them, and sales remain strong, despite Amazon’s assault on bookstores.  (And I do mean assault.)  The “friction” (or difficulty) of obtaining a print book —you have to go somewhere to get one: library, bookstore, or online— is also a friction for the publisher (lately restyled as the “intellectual property owner” —but that’s another blog entry).  Once published and sold, a print book can’t be disappeared in an Orwellian or Statist (Fascist) manner.  Case in point: last summer the merger of Penguin and Random House led to the disappearing of 1,400 Random House digital books from the SHU library catalog —the terms of the deal seems to have indicated that the new management (mostly from Penguin) would not continue the contracts with digital book aggregators (in our case, eBrary Academic Complete).  Suddenly links didn’t work, and a few weeks later records displaying them were deleted from our library system.  Had we purchase those 1,400 books as printed, the library would still have them available.  At least a few of them are bound to have been of enduring value and related to SHU’s curriculum (it was Random House, an “old” and “quality” publisher).  Now we have to pay more —either acquire print copies, or find where they are available digitally.

This doesn’t get at why books really matter, of course.  I’m thinking of academic books: scholarly books, and high-quality books for the wider market (such as Robert Caro’s everlasting biography of Lyndon B. Johnson).  What matters is not their format, but their content, their intellectual, nuanced exploration and exposition of a subject.  Format is not incidental, but neither is it crucial.

Books are critical to education and the life of a culture because of the sustained attention required to write and to read them.  Books are critical because they encode or contain thinking that can become part of a public discourse —can be challenged, confirmed, critiqued, welcomed, despised, all the possible outcomes of seriously considering a proposition or an argument.  A book sticks around in a stable form so that the author cannot suddenly alter  its contents to suit latter convenience, prove herself or himself right, or respond to critics.

Books are destructible, and tyrants have long sought to destroy them.  Book burnings became a badge of totalitarianism in the 20th century.  But otherwise all the copies of a book are hard to destroy.  A widely distributed supply and market system made it highly likely that somewhere, somehow, a copy might survive.  This has mattered in the face of tyrant, and it matter most during the period when so many texts went underground during the great disruptions of the early Middle Ages.  This list of ancient authors who survived to be read later on the basis of a single copy is a long list, and includes works by Aristotle, Lucretius, and Tacitus.

The idea that books as a technology of learning are obsolete takes a very short view.  To be sure: some books are obsolete: who bothers to look up past market prices for securities in a printed volume?  A much longer view sees the value in the conversations among and between generations.  Partisans of the “originalist” view of the U.S. Constitution need to know what those original views are; partisans or a more evolutionist view need a sense of difference over time, of intervening realities and developments.  At the far end of this this longer horizon is the Long Now Foundation, Stewart Brand’s striking question: what are we doing that could make any difference 10,000 years from now?  (See The Long Now Foundation)

A neo-liberal university in which the customer (students + parents) is king may be able to “satisfice” their information needs by simply pulling random hits from a casual Google search.  That sells students and learning short, perhaps disastrously short.  Learning is more than simply a private good to be parceled out to those who can pay.  I believe in books, because books give witness to thinking that might propell such a university away from a view which spells long term disaster for learning, for universities, and for free society.