Wednesday, April 25, 2012

E-books and Gnosticism

I've read exactly one full book on Josh's Kindle. I really enjoyed the book, but felt strangely disoriented  as I read. So disoriented, in fact, that I cannot even recall the name of the book or the author. If I wanted to recommend it to someone, I couldn't, and this makes me feel uncomfortable.

The folks at the Circe Institute Blog have posted an argument by Warren Farha about how e-books are essentially gnostic technology and lead us to a sort of Docetic relationship with books. He makes an interesting case. I disagree with his fear of the dreaded Google-god, and ultimately I think that Google Books is a fantastic tool for research. I don't think you should read every book electronically, but being able to search online for books and use Google Books as a starting point for your research, to get a sense of the current scholarly conversation, or to read for mere facts or information is, I think, a good thing.

I've been reading Adler and Van Doren's How to Read a Book for the Logic class that I'm teaching, and they argue that there are multiple ways to read a book. I think it might be acceptable to read digital books for information, but I think I want to say right now that it is better to read physical books for understanding. I'm not sure if someone who has read The Odyssey digitally has read the same Odyssey that has been read for thousands of years. Adler and Van Doren warn about the "bookful blockheads," those who have read widely but poorly, and I think that this is ultimately what Farha's main concern with Google Books boils down to: the possibility that as we abandon physical media for digital, students who have not yet learned to read well may be hindered by the technological crutch. It might produce intellectual laziness. I think it's the same kind of laziness that comes from the availability of calculators. People I know have overheard local college students--college students!--who were unable to come up with the product of six and seven on their own. They had to pull out their iPhones to check. I don't want to sound like a fuddy-duddy. My father is an engineer, and I know how much time a calculator can save. I think it's an incredibly helpful tool, but I also think that it's sometimes misused. I think e-books might be like that, too.

I think Farha, after dismissing the sentimentality of the aesthetic objection to e-books, gets a little sentimental himself in his defense of matter. I don't think that the aesthetic arguments (or the sentiments!) should be rejected so easily, but I do think that Farha may be right in some ways. The immateriality of an e-book explains rather adequately to me the disorientation that I experienced when I read That Book I Can't Remember. When I read a book by Lewis, beyond the surface-level information I glean, I usually feel a fondness for Lewis, and I store away my experience of reading (and my understanding of how my thoughts and sentiments have been affected by reading) in a little library card catalogue drawer in my mind where all my Lewis thoughts and sentiments go to be synthesized and integrated. Reading That Book, I have no sense of the author. I had thoughts and sentiments while reading, but I have nowhere to file them. They contribute to no greater picture. They don't help me understand the author better because I don't have the foggiest idea who the author is. I can't even tell you if the author was male or female. If I wanted to read more, or heck, even read the same book again, I'd have to browse each title on the Kindle until I found one that jogged my memory. The relationship between the reader and the author was nearly sundered when I read That Book.

Maybe it's because I'm a visual person. Maybe other people don't experience disorientation while reading e-books. I don't think there have been enough studies on the effect of reading digital media yet, but it would be interesting to see if my experience of disorientation is isolated or shared. 



1 comment:

Eddie said...

I know exactly what you mean. I've had a nook since Nov 2010. In that time, I've read 166 books, but only 8 of them were ebooks, and I've only used it when traveling. It's incredibly convenient, but I just don't like reading on a screen.

As you said, it's disorienting. I think that's because reading a book is very much like going on a journey (for me anyway). Some books are short jaunts; some are epic treks. And with physical books, the journey of the text is also manifested in the form. You physically turn each page, and the shape of the book changes. You can flip through and see how far you've come and how far you have yet to go. You can look at the placement of your bookmark and quickly gauge your progress. Your hands may cramp. You can get papercuts. The unique smell of a book can bind itself to a passage or idea in your memory. The book can leave a physical mark on you, as well as an emotional/spiritual/intellectual one. You can leave a mark on it, and the notes will be in your own handwriting.

You lose all of that with e-books. And it's not an insignificant loss. I think anyone who doesn't feel that loss when they read e-books must be, like you said, a "bookful blockhead".

Another reason I don't feel totally comfortable with e-books is because of how easily they could be changed. I don't trust that I've actually read the whole book in its original, intended form. I remember how in the Kindle's early life, Amazon remotely deleted every downloaded copy of an unauthorized edition of 1984 (could it have been a more perfectly chosen book?). I've read on author/publishing blogs that authors look forward to the prevalence of e-books because they will be able to make further revisions even after the book is published -- the changes will just automatically update on the downloaded copies. The potential for abuse is huge, especially when dealing with political or historical works. Maybe I'm paranoid, but I won't read "important" books on my nook. Only fluff. And I'm collecting as many classic works as I can, in physical book form.

I don't want to sound like a luddite or whatever, but I do think that e-books are kind of soulless. And I'm not convinced that it's in a harmless way, either.


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