Aug 30, 2013

Posted by in Culture | 3 Comments

Miscellany 53: The Author, the Book, and New Media

It’s the beginning of a new school year, with all the excitement (and nervousness, and hustle and bustle) that entails. My students (in my Apologetics Research and Writing class) are about to start reading and discussing Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and so I’ve been thinking about media and its relationship to the written word.

How is technology shaping the way that authors and readers relate to each other? Here’s an interesting piece that reflects not just on the reader’s (potentially) changing relationship to the text, but on the relationship that authors have with readers:

The writer is quickly being socialized by technology, forced out of Doctorow’s cloister and into the mediated arena where silence is not allowed. Writers are fashioning new forms from the easy availability of companionable technologies. Ten years ago, the novelist or the nonfictionist had no access to such interplay: the door to imagining collaborative possibilities for new pieces had neither been built nor unlocked. Suddenly, such teaming-up makes the writer as enhanceable as the writing is. The options for expression technology also expand the idea of authorship. The new author can choose to socialize his ideas and voice with technology as well as with new venues and new audiences.

Back to Amusing Ourselves to Death: it’s a curious thing; in re-reading this book to prep for class, I realize that in some ways I agree even more fully with Postman, but in other ways I disagree more. He was writing, in 1985, about the way that television had changed and was continuing to change our culture and the way we respond to ideas. However, I don’t think he anticipated a second shift that’s happened in my lifetime, and in fact in my career as a teacher: the advent of the blogosphere, and of text-centered social media (Facebook and Twitter do use the written word, after all.)

What I think is worrying is something rather different: that electronic reading is a profoundly dis-incarnate mode of engaging with the world.

A piece on Image Journals’ Good Letters blog puts it this way:

I’ll just say it: E-books are a gnostic technology that nourishes gnostic tendencies. And I’ve been taught, and know historically, that gnosticism is heresy number one.

When we read physical books, the text is physically mediated in a delightful, infinite variety of ways. The word comes incarnate in ink and paper and covers. The word in E-books, I know, is also physically mediated, but it tends toward the virtual, and renders the medium immaterial.

Just as the Docetist variety of early Christian gnosticism taught that Christ only seemed to be human, so E-books lend a ghostly air to the screen presence of whatever text it displays.

And so I would suggest that there are theological, not just practical, reasons to affirm that printed books are a good thing, not to be left behind in some mad rush of ‘progress.’ (As I tell my students, medieval manuscripts could survive centuries of neglect and often abuse by virtue of being made out of animal skins. A thumb drive might not even survive coffee being spilled on it, and if that isn’t a routine academic hazard, I don’t know what is.)

While we’re at it, here’s a piece considering the differences in engagement between electronic books (ebooks) and printed books (pbooks).

It is this interaction that I call  imaginative discovery. I think imaginative discovery is a very important component of reading, especially for those who are just beginning the lifetime adventure that reading can bring about. When adults watch a movie or play a video game, they tend to become absorbed into whatever action is occurring before them. They do not independently discover new things or use their imagination. They follow the creator’s storyline.

In contrast, when an adult reads a novel — whether ebook or pbook – the adult uses his or her imagination to fill in what is missing, whether it be dialogue or visualization of the scene or how a character looks. But adults do so from a lifetime of experience.  […]

But the young child doesn’t have that lifetime of experience to bring to the reading experience. He (or she) is only beginning on the road to building the tools needed for imaginative discovery. Thus the tactile capabilities of a pbook may be more important than all of the enhancements that an ebook can bring.

I spent this past summer in Oxford, away from my collection of printed books that I would usually use for reference. It was extremely useful to be able to pull up a C.S. Lewis book on my Kindle app and find the quote that I needed, without having to go to the Bodleian just for that. I appreciate the practical utility of e-books. But now that I’m home and preparing for teaching a class, I find myself going back to print copies of books, not because I don’t have the option for e-books, but because the print version is better for engagement. Interesting.


Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type (2010; 2nd ed. forthcoming, 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

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  1. I’m having this debate as well. I travel for a living and can bring all of my seminary books with me on my computer. There is no way I could physically carry all the versions of the bible that I can in my hard drive. I also love the fact that I can download a “quick read” from Amazon for my commute home. I have read a ton of great stuff this way.

    I have noticed though, that I do not own the text anymore. There is something about the had copy that becomes a part of you that doesn’t happen when you read the e version. I noticed it most when I did Prof. Grant Horner’s Bible reading program.

    With the text you physically know where something is in the book. You remember that, “its right after that part about…” or ” it is near the end.” Its similar to knowing where you own house it on the block, “on the left, about half way down.” In this way you actually own it.

    Im not finding that this happens in the e versions at all. I know we can use the search bar, etc… but I do think we are missing something. So keep a real library, and purchase a hard copy of those books you’ve read that are worth re-reading, and leave the rest on the hard drive….

  2. This debate seems a bit superficial to me. It’s like debating the best format for listening to music. Every format has its advantages. I agree with Will that paper is easier to scan (especially when you can’t quite remember the search terms you would need) and ownership and privacy is much more definite. But having enough to read for a year in a device the size of a paperback is incredibly useful. I also love integrated dictionary look-up and how I can painlessly highlight ebooks (whereas I can’t get myself to mark up paper books).

  3. Holly Ordway says:

    Don, I disagree; I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Technology changes the way we interact with each other and the world, in good, bad, and neutral ways. I’m certainly not saying that e-books aren’t useful (I do use them). But I think it is wise to be thoughtful about the ways that their use may change how we read and relate to each other.

    Consider, for instance, the advent of recorded music. In one sense, it’s just a different format for listening to music: one can go to a concert, or hear a friend play, or one can listen to a recording any time. The tradeoffs in sound quality and convenience were probably fairly straightforward at the time. But what I suspect fewer people realized was that the wide acceptance of recorded music for playing in one’s home effectively ended the then-normal practice of a large majority of ordinary people learning how to play and instrument and/or sing, so as to entertain their family and friends. Recorded music shifted the way people listened to music, such that today, a tiny minority of people know how to sing or play an instrument (compared to a century or two ago) and it’s no longer a normal activity for families and friends to gather to hear each other sing and play. (It still happens, but it’s now exceptional). What we ended up with is the intense privitizing of music (each person listening to his or her favorites on a personal device), and the transformation of music from an active and social pursuit to a passive, receptive, solitary entertainment experience.

    What will e-books and reader technology do to our reading habits? It will change them; and that’s why I think it’s definitely worthwhile to consider the implications of the change while it’s happening, since I do think it’s a bigger question (culturally speaking) than weighing practical pros and cons.