“What would happen if the printed book had just been invented in a high-tech world in which people had never done their reading from anything but computer screens? The unquestionable advantages of the computer would not be threatened by this new product but the people, who so love to compare apples with pears, would be quite bowled over by this ultra-modern invention: after years spent chained to the screen they would suddenly have something they could open like a window or a door – a machine you can physically enter!
“For the first time knowledge would be combined with a sense of touch and gravity – this new invention allows you to experience the most incredible sensations, reading becomes a physical experience. And after experiencing knowledge only as a bundle of connections, as a system of interacting networks, suddenly here is individuality: every book is an independent personality, which cannot be taken apart or added to at will. And how relaxing these new reading appliances are, their operating systems never needs updating – the only thing that changes over the course of time is the message that they contain, which is always open to new interpretations.”
– Juan Villoro
(From an article in last month’s Cultura, an Argentinian culture magazine)
“He should live with more books than he reads, with a penumbra of unread pages, of which he knows the general character and content, fluttering round him. This is the purpose of libraries… It is also the purpose of good bookshops, both new and secondhand, of which there are still some, and would that there were more. A bookshop is not like a railway booking-office which one approaches knowing what one wants. One should enter it vaguely, almost in a dream, and allow what is there freely to attract and influence the eye.
“To walk the rounds of the bookshops, dipping in as curiosity dictates, should be an afternoon’s entertainment. Feel no shyness or compunction in taking it. Bookshops exist to provide it; and the booksellers welcome it, knowing how it will end.”
– John Maynard Keynes ( from “Bookshops about more than just purchasing,” Canberra Times)
Schuler Books, a locally-owned bookstore chain here in Michigan, posted this today on their Facebook page. I love this store, and I love having a locally-owned bookstore only a few miles from my house, so I try to patronize the store when I buy new books (which, sadly, isn’t very often).
As Keynes says, there’s a world of difference between browsing in a store and “browsing” on a website. In a physical store, you can take everything in with a glance. You can follow something that catches your eye, rather than clicking on a subject area or a “recently popular” link. You can touch and hold things, make a stack to consider later, see the front/back/inside without waiting for the page to load, and going “back” just takes a step. I don’t think I’m explaining this well, but I do know that I never shop online unless it’s for products I can’t get locally or to get more information on a known product.
Besides, call me old a romantic, but I think books loose a lot when you convert them to data on a computer/tablet screen. Heck, everything does. There’s a difference between owning a CD (a tangible, physical thing, with a case and artwork, that takes up space in your home) and owning a bunch of mp3s you play in iTunes. The first is a possession; the second is just information. I always want to have the actual CD.
I am a bit of a Luddite (someone resistant to new technologies), and I’m fascinated with how each technology changes how people think and communicate. Following is a quote from Neil Postman, who has seriously considered this question. It’s from his 1992 book “Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology,” which I’d recommend. The book considers the (mostly negative) ways that Mr. Postman sees technology changing American culture, and ends with this manifesto.
Those who resist the American Technopoly are people:
- who pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked, and why;
- who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations;
- who have freed themselves from the belief in the magical power of numbers and do not regard calculations as an adequate substitute for judgement or precision as a substitute or synonym for truth;
- who are, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding;
- who do not regard the aged as irrelevant;
- who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor;
- who take the great narratives of religion seriously and do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth;
- who know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and who do not wink at tradition for modernity’s sake;
- who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement.
I think of Postman every time I see a TV/car/camera add promising to improve my life, or open up a whole new world of sensory bliss, or make me a new person. I’d also recommend his “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which argues that television is at its worst when it presents serious subjects. He has nothing wrong with stupid TV shows, but he thinks that putting politics, religion, and news on the television changes and cheapens how we understand them. I love this guy. Can you tell?