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In Defense of Books:

At our early morning informal coffee group on Montana Avenue, the topic of the future of print has sometimes been raised. A new Kindle having appeared recently with its amazing storage system of complete books led to a discussion of the future of published books as we know them. Some have predicted their demise. Also, a future without printed newspapers seems to many as virtually inevitable.

As an educator, I cannot help but be concerned about yet more steps in the direction of screen dominated media. For I believe that “out of sight,” as in books on the shelves at home, in libraries, and bookstores, that we can see or touch – will inevitably lead to out of mind, as in less reading. Holding a book, physically turning the pages, underlining passages or making marginal notes to return to, leads to wanting to spend time with that book. I do not believe that holding a Kindle holds a candle to the former experience. Books can be savored; print going by on a screen offers fewer means of savoring. And, of course, the less reading our techno generations do, the further the decline in writing skills. Ask any college teacher about the quality of freshman writing compared to twenty years ago. Sadly, most will tell you of a noticeable decline in the ability of students to write a clear, coherent paragraph.

And what of the experience of browsing in libraries? What will happen if the publishing of actual, hand-held individual books is supplanted by techno libraries. If new books do not appear on the shelves, how will browsers have the experience of being captivated by a book’s design, its size and shape, the cover, the flipping of pages leading to intuitive feelings that “yes, this is a book I want to curl up with?” Will these experiences really be engendered on tiny screens? I admit to a certain techno-phobia, but nevertheless, I believe the dangers of reducing and ultimately doing away with printed publications will diminish us all.

Also, what of book signings? They are, so often, wonderful communal experiences where people meet the author, ask questions, meet new book-lovers, drink coffee and take away the prized, signed, first-edition of this or that. What will replace such gatherings? An author scratching an X onto the Kindle’s encasement while sitting alone in front of his screen?

In a recent (June 8, 2009) issue of The Nation, author Elizabeth Sifton writes of a new generation of electronic entrepreneurs who believe that the value of books lies in the information stored there. This, of course, misses the point of what literature, culture, and – by extension – life is all about. We may go to books for information from time to time, but what we go there for, more importantly, is for knowledge, guidance, wisdom, as well as joyful engagement. Again, without books to fondle, mark-up, inscribe marginal notes to mark key passages, something important is lost.

None of us knows what the ultimate fate of books will be. I do know that there is a sense of oneness with life and of the enriched feeling that comes with the experience of holding a good book and immersing yourself in its pages. The poet Wallace Stevens captures some of this feeling in a poem whose title is the first line:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book. The house was quiet and the world was calm.

May that experience never be lost.

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