Sunday, September 06, 2009

Finding your way through (a) book(s)

(((Prep school ditches physical books in favor of digital "books;" what about the "geographical" aspects of reading?)))

A Boston Globe story about Cushing Academy ditching their library for some Kindles is making the rounds. There is, of course, much to quibble with in this decision, including this peculiar way of framing it:
“Instead of a traditional library with 20,000 books, we’re building a virtual library where students will have access to millions of books,’’ said Tracy, whose office shelves remain lined with books. “We see this as a model for the 21st-century school.’’
I really don't understand why "traditional library" and "virtual library" are mutually exclusive. Except, maybe, for bad pricing models.

My main reason for preferring to do my Serious Reading with books, rather than on my laptop or a reader, is that I have yet to find a reading device that lets me interact with the text in the same way that a book does. For the minimal cost of a pencil (or perhaps a Sharpie acid-free pen, ahem), I can react to the book in the book, including circling and drawing lines and writing notes, connecting notes to each other or places in the text, and connecting pieces of the text to each other. Some of this can be done digitally, but some of it so far cannot -- especially the drawing of lines.

But that is not going to be my Argument For Books.

My AFB is about geography.

Argument Part the First
When I read a physical text, I get a feel for where in the text something is, literally, physically, "geographically" where. I know it's at the beginning, the middle, the end, at the top of a page, on a "left-hand" page or a "right-hand" page, and so on. This physical, tactile aspect of reading contributes to memory, which a forthcoming post will say is essential to the very possibility of critical, analytical thinking. What I worry about with screen reading, and I do it all the time, by the way, is that this geographic aspect of reading gets lost, and then our reading bypasses a lot of the mental architecture we have for remembering things we've read. For shorter stuff, this "geographical" aspect doesn't matter -- there's not enough geography to the text. For War and Peace or Being and Time or The Odyssey, on the other hand? That said, this way of reading might suit many Christians in their approach to the Bible, where verses devoid of historical or textual context stand entirely alone, or, conversely, it is more important to look back at Zechariah to understand that passage in Matthew than to read the rest of the story in Matthew.

Argument Part the Second
Space is not only important in terms of one's interaction with a single book, but also in terms of one's interaction with multiple books or even texts of shorter length. Colleagues of mine recently expressed frustration at how little of a text they could see at once when they're writing (one of the reasons I sometimes compose online, but for my longer stuff I always edit a printed copy). This limitation applies in spades to working with multiple texts: there is nothing like working on a problem where you are dealing with multiple texts and/or multiple readings of those texts, and having the books spread out on a table or desk in front of you. This is just not the same as flipping between windows on screen, even though the screen in that case takes on a geographical element, and of course the idea of a desktop or of "screen real estate" uses spatial metaphors.

The problem is that there isn't enough space, and it's simply not malleable enough. It can't be. Why not? While in certain respects you could say that there are infinite dimensions in a computer screen, the truth is that, in terms of the ways humans process visual information, there are not. The visual information communicated by a single book in your hands, or by piles of books and articles and note papers strewn about a desk is richer and more intuitive, taking in the scene tells you about what you have in front of you without your even thinking about it.* How deep is a stack of windows on your computer? It could be a hundred, or it could be two, but how would you know? On a table, you just look, and you don't even think about it. The flattening effect of the screen is in this respect positively debilitating. And we know this, which is why people talk about screen real estate in the first place: we know it matters to have stuff spread out in front of you, rather than buried in a virtual pile. Programmers and designers want big monitors because they need to be able to see stuff easily and not always be shuffling windows from the front to the back -- or top to bottom -- note how there is no difference when we talk about computer screens. It's the simple difference between two and three physical -- not virtual -- dimensions.

I love my computers. Both of them. Couldn't live without them. But they are not replacements for books. And thinking about my comments above about editing, by the way, has me thinking about the effects of this spatial/geographical problem and blog posts . . .

* See the forthcoming post of an article from a cognitive scientist about human processing of information, and in particular the relation of thinking to memory. In short: we remember more than we think, and rely on memory more than we rely on "new" thinking, and even when we think, we think using stuff we remember. So, learning to think is not just a matter of learning "how to think", understood as some pure or abstract skill divorced from content. And content is not just a matter of having something to think about, but of having something to think with. Learning to think is, in fact, in no small part, learning content.

1 comment:

pkeane said...

Funny, I used the word "geography" in a similar sense in my response to a couple of blog postings about digital information and libraries: