Saturday, April 18, 2009

Books: Has Their Time Come?

Over the last few days I've been thinking a post Donald Clark put up last week entitled Bayard throws the book at books. Donald's post is about Professor Pierre Bayard's engagingly titled book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. As Donald explains, Bayard recognizes that there is a problem with relying on books. People forget what's in them, they recall things incorrectly; many (including myself) buy books they have yet to or (sometimes) never end up reading, or buy books and merely skim them while relying on the perspectives of others for understanding them, the list goes on. These are all perfectly meaningful insights. Donald and the Professor seek to redefine the definition of "reading", and I see their point; but I think this is a false problem.

I think Donald and the Professor are expressing consternation more with human behavior than with books per se. In this sense I think they are more criticizing the situation, more than they are books themselves. After all, we humans are only so capable. Even the most capable of human minds can only focus on so much at once, or tackle problems limited in number and magnitude. Because of this I would defend the book over the human ion this struggle. It is not a book's fault that humans skim poorly, or misread or misrecall. Books also cannot stop humans from misappropriating expertise in books through ego-driven pursuits. One side of the argument holds that books can be ill-designed, poorly written, or other manner of ergonomic malfeasance; these are all acceptable criticisms. But books are simply what we make them. We've survived for hundreds of years with them - nay, longer - and they continue to serve us well, if the field of medicine is any indication. And books have another post-technological use: I once had an art instructor who made the argument that learning to do art by traditional media first, rather than the computer screen and tablet, leaves one better skilled, especially when the lights go out. I think her observation translates well to books too, but I digress.

But perhaps Donald and the Professor are not dismissing that humans act in such ways; perhaps they understand this and are simply explaining how books are old hat and do not account for human behavior in their design very well in today's world. I can see this argument at first, but then I must protest and say that humans can abuse or misuse internet sites, blogs, forums, and other modern "tomes" of information as easily and as prolifically as any book. The only difference is with the technology-driven means, we have the handy search function that makes information verification far easier than having to remember where in a book something was said.

On another level, I would disagree with Donald and the Professor in the sense that reading on a computer screen can pose its own problems. I read on a computer screen in a setting in which I also do work; perhaps such a setting for taking in a worldly classic or even the latest NYT sci-fi paperback thriller is less than ideal for reading enjoyment? Or perhaps not. At least now there are options for everyone (any Kindlers out there?), and that's certainly not a bad thing.

I say, keep the books. They still have a place. Just be sure to be skeptical.

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