Bookmarking a Book Burning – I

Julian Baggini (Aeon) has posted a thoughtful piecejulian-baggini-burning-books on the need for an important cultural artifact to evolve — not just in its codex form but in its very essence — the encyclopedia.  One reader/viewer (there’s a video as well) commented:

Which is worse? Burning books because they are now available in an electronic format? Or not having any physical books to burn, unless you steal them from a museum or collector?

Hold that thought (an “argument by false dichotomy”) and go to Baggini’s concluding paragraph:

I can’t help but mourn the passing of my set of Britannicas, but I do not mourn the passing of the institution. Encyclopædias have passed their use-by-date as fitting symbols for the esteem in which we hold culture and learning. The world is changing, and books, magazines and education have to change with it. Nostalgia for obsolete publications serves us only if we use it to remind us of the things we really value, and want to take forward into our own new world.

What if, though, the things we value and want to take forward into our new world are caught up in the “affordances” of such tangible institutions as the encyclopedia.  Maryanne Wolf hits this chord hard in Proust and the Squid when she worries about the effect of the Google universe on the nature of her children’s ability to read:

Reading is a neuronally and intellectually circuitous act, enriched as much by the unpredictable indirections of a reader’s inferences and thoughts as by the direct message from the eye to the text. … Will the constructive component at the heart of reading begin to change and potentially atrophy as we shift to computer-presented text, in which massive amounts of information appear instantaneously? … is there either sufficient time or sufficient motivation to process the information more inferentially, analytically and critically? … Or does the potential added information from hyperlinked text contribute to the development of the child’s thinking? …

I stray with these questions. But indeed we stray often when we read.  Far from being negative, this associative dimension is part of the generative quality at the heart of reading. … Charles Darwin saw in creation a similar principle, … ‘From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.’  So it is with written language.  Biologically and intellectually, reading allows the species to go ‘beyond the information given’ to create endless thoughts most beautiful and wonderful.   We must not lose this essential quality in our present moment of historical transition to new ways of acquiring, processing and comprehending information. (pp. 16-17)

To go back to Baggini’s troubled reader/viewer, we will not burn books because we have them electronically.  As our different types of books evolve, some we will have electronically only and some we will have both in print and electronically.  We already have many digitised rare books and manuscripts in libraries, museums and collectors’ holdings.  Most people’s exposure to those works can only be electronic, and the more this is the case, the less the need to steal them.   But also the greater the need to understand and innovate to address the loss of tactility and the proprioceptive experience of “curling up with a good book.”  In alluding to Jerome Bruner’s collection of essays Beyond the Information Given, Wolf is reminding us (linking us?) to Bruner’s apt observation that Lev Vygotsky, the famous Soviet developmental psychologist, “was fond of an epigram from Bacon, “Nec manus, nisi intellectus, sibi permissus, multum valent” (Neither hand nor intellect left each to itself is worth much)” (247).   Perhaps neither print nor digital left each to itself is sufficient.