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books vs kindleThere was the Great Flood. There were the Ten Plagues of Egypt. There was the Fall of Rome. There was the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem and the Fall of Constantinople. And now this: The Encyclopedia Britannica is going out of print.

While the Simpsons just celebrated its 500th show, the world’s greatest learned publication couldn’t even make it to its 250th anniversary. Will the last person who even knows what Western civilization is please turn out the lights?

I submit that this is the most significant cultural event of the last fifty years. No. Make that a hundred. The New Dark Ages are upon us.

T. S. Eliot ended his poem, “The Hollow Men,” with the words:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The sing-song rhythm of the first three lines evokes a child’s careless playground chant, as if Eliot meant to say that the end of the world would be attended with a general lack of awareness that anything significant was really happening–and that, when it did happen, it might go unremarked or even unnoticed.

If you want proof that our own culture is experiencing this very kind of end, just look at the malaise with which we have greeted the Britannica announcement. Note the general cultural yawn directed toward the announcement that they will be suspending their print edition.

The best anyone could do was to give the glib assurance that there was nothing to worry about, since Britannica will continue in an electronic edition.

If someone important to you died, would you find comfort from being told that he or she would continue on in a digital form? No. Encyclopedia Britannica is dead. We now have only its electronic ghost.

Our cultural landscape is fast becoming welter and waste. Before the barbarian onslaught of the computer, one would go to a place and read a thing. There was a library, and it had books, and one went there to read them. Go into a library now, and look to the right, where there are rows of shelves of books, but no people. Then look to the left, where there are rows and rows of people–sitting at computers.

Soon the shelves will be gone, the books sold, leaving only the people, staring mesmerized at their screens. They won’t even notice that the books have been taken away.

Every technological revolution has its benefits—and its casualties. The invention of writing was itself a technological revolution. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato tells a story about the old god Theuth, the inventor of many arts, including arithmetic and geometry. But his greatest discovery, said Plato, “was the use of letters.” He came one day to Thamus, the Egyptian god-king, who dwelt in Thebes. Theuth presented his great invention, writing, to the king. “This,” said Theuth,” will make the Egyptians wiser. It will increase their memory and improve their wit.” But the Egyptian king was not impressed.

“Because these letters are like your own offspring,” he said, “you are blind to their faults. This discovery of yours will only create forgetfulness in the learner’s soul because he will no longer need to use his memory. He will trust to the written characters instead of his memory, and will not remember them himself. These letters of yours may help in reminiscence, but they are not an aid to memory. Your hearers will become, not disciples of the truth, but of a semblance of truth only. They will be hearers of many things, but they will learn nothing.”

This seems a harsh judgment to us today, and yet there is truth in it. Writing brought about many improvements, but it would be false to think that, in moving away from an oral culture where memorization was the primary method of learning, something was not lost.

The invention of letters was followed more than two millenia later by the invention of movable type, a revolution without which the Renaissance and the Reformation would not even have been possible. But with the increase in the availability of the written word, there have been losses once again. For every work of Shakespeare put between covers, there were twenty cheap romance novels. For every book designed to teach an intelligent public, there are fifty newspapers distorting events. And for every learned tome, there are an hundred volumes of pornography.

But over the last twenty years, we have been taking another step. What Marshall McCluhan called the “Guttenburg Galaxy” displaced the Parchment Planet. But as we have moved into the Electronic Era, we find that the actual universe itself cannot contain it.

The material on which we would now inscribe our thoughts and our dreams is not material at all. For at least two millenia we have seen the physical act of writing as a kind of embodiment. Our thoughts were somehow rendered complete by being made incarnate on the written page.

They became flesh and dwelt among us.

The digital revolution comes at us with a kind of Gnostic pretense. Far from any kind of embodiment, it promises to liberate us from the physical altogether. Just listen to the justifications from those who have abandoned their books for Kindles or Nooks or iPads:

The “delivery method is convenient.” delivers my books right to my home. And if I go to a bookstore (which is not something I do not as a chore, but something I actually like to do), I have this trick I perform with my arm whereby I lift it vertically in the air, grasp the book on the shelf in my hand and bring my arm (in another intricate movement) back down again.

After a while you get pretty good at it.

“iPads and Kindles are good for the environment.” Is that before or after the manufacturing plants discharge toxic metals that can cause birth defects into nearby streams, as Apple has been accused of doing in China? Producing books may involve killing trees, but you can grow more trees. But if you’re born with three noses, growing another one won’t do you much good.

You “don’t have to carry fifty pounds of books everywhere.” Neither do I. If I have fifty pounds of books, I’m carrying too many books. Who needs to carry around fifty points of books? Some students say they have to carry around fifty pounds of books, but that’s probably more a function of inefficient study practices than anything else. And if you really have to spend a day at school and you’re a commuter and you have to carry around fifty pounds of books, then get a travel bag with wheels.

I will admit that my wife accuses me of carrying around fifty pounds of books, but I deny it. I only carry around, oh, I don’t know, about thirty pounds of books. And I really don’t need them all. I tell my wife I bring them with me for the same reason I bring her: I take comfort from having them there.

“You can highlight things in a kindle that can be easily erased” and “make notes.” Look folks, GET A PENCIL.

My books have a number of distinct advantages over your iPad.

When the stewardess comes around and tells everyone to turn off their electronic devices, I just look around and laugh an evil laugh as all of these people with iPads and Nooks have to stop reading until we reach the right altitude. I, on the other hand, go on reading. The next time I’m on a plane and the stewardess gives this command, I’m going to flag her down and tell her that I can’t find the on/off switch for my print copy of Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy.

She may call TSA on me, but it will have been worth it.

And when I get old and die, I can hand on my books to my children. If I have a Kindle, what am I going to do? Hand an old Kindle that will undoubtedly be completely obsolete down to them?

Each one of my books has a history. I buy a lot of used books. The other day a student’s paper fell out of the pages of one old book I had. It had the teacher’s marks and his own amusing responses. It was from the 1950s.

I can sometimes tell something about the previous owner of a book. I have a small set of philosophy books I bought once and I can tell tell that the man who owned them was a smoker. I have imagined that maybe it was a priest, sitting in his study, reading about Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysics.

And if they do not have my own marks and notes, they have the marks and notes of others who owned them before. I buy a lot of used books, and a couple of years ago I bought a used copy of The Idea of Nature, by R. G. Collingwood, online. When I received it, I opened the cover and beheld a bookplate with the name Richard Niebuhr. Niebuhr had marked the book extensively, and so what I had received in the mail was not just a good book, but the thoughts about the book from one of the great Christian thinkers of the 20th century.

A book can almost have a personality. It was written by somebody, and it is about something. Neither of these things can be said of a Kindle, or a Nook, or an iPad. They are not written at all and are not about anything.

After libraries have all closed down or become free computer centers, there will still be people like me, feeling like monks in monasteries preserving books in their own private libraries.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis essay originally appeared on Vital Remnants and is published here by permission.

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35 replies to this post
  1. One day I can can say to my grandchildren: Your great grandfather used to have a very interesting hobby.– His prized possession was the Encyclopedia Britannica. Being an NCO in the Navy was not a very lucrative career and buying a set of those encyclopedias was a sacrifice for the whole family. The paper was thin and the type tiny. Each volume was well bound containing vast amounts of knowledge. He started with the letter "A", volume one, and would read for hours on end. I truly think he may have finished that entire set."

  2. "A book can almost have a personality. It was written by somebody, and it is about something. Neither of these things can be said of a Kindle, or a Nook, or an iPad. They are not written at all and are not about anything."

    Here, I think, you have gone a bit too far. I have books. I have a Kindle. I have, at this point, 5 G.K. Chesterton essay collections on my Kindle. I enjoy reading them on the Kindle as much as I have in paper.

    With that said, if I ran across a Chesterton volume in a used book store, I would likely buy it.

    But, I do not think I will go so far to say that, because the Chesterton collections on my Kindle are electronic, any more than because someone used a printing press instead of a scribe to place his thoughts on paper, it is no longer Chesterton I am reading.

  3. I'm reading about and commenting on this "death of Western Civilazation" meme using my amazing NOOK Tablet. I've downloaded to this device all 4,000 pages of St. Thomas Aquinas "Summae Theologicae", as well as "Great Expectations", Fr. James Schall's "Another Sort of Learning", and numerous other classics of fiction and non-fiction. End of Western Civ? Not likely. What will kill it are humerless, hopeless luddites who constantly complain about changing technology.

  4. I think books will endure; what may not endure are ephemeral books such as paperbacks, magazines, newspapers and text books. When the author spoke about the Enclyopedia Britannica he left out an important point. The Britannica has always been associated with LITERATURE as well as science and its books were very well written. They were also authoritative though sometimes out of date. I recall our 1959 set -the set I grew up with-. Under Kennedy it didn't even mention the Irish Kennedys or John F. Kennedy. It only talked about a Scottish line. That having been said many of the articles (especially pre 1970) were done by famous authors and professors. So scientific or technical articles may be out of date but the old volumes still have artisitic and literary merit. I believe books will of realia, documents, pictures, photographs, dvd's. I believe the market for quality leather bound books will remain strong. These are permanent books. I read a lot on my Nook. I still subscribe to two newspapers and I will subscribe as long as they are available. But I am no longer buying as many physical books or magazines. I never enjoyed reading on the computer for long periods but I do enjoy reading on the Nook. I have a few classics in hardcover AND in Nook format only for convenience. I still think research and study is easier to do with a physical book. I have only a NOOK reader by the way; I have no interest in seeing music videos or movies or TV shows on my Nook. That's one of the reasons I got a Nook. It is my private world and it has no advertisements. It is strickly for readers. I love the fact I can buy individual newspapers for 50 cents or 99 cents. Many classics such as Chesterton's classic biography of Dickens are available for free or for very modest prices (such as 99 cents). I had read Chesteron's book before from the library but never had my own copy. I still have some paperbacks and paperbacks have the virtue that they are not valuable to it doesn't matter if they get lost or stolen. But at my age (56) I don't enjoy reading the small print of most paperbacks. With the Nook that is no problem. I make the print larger or smaller according to my need. So far I don't do much note writing in the NOOK but I do occasionally look up words in the dictionary -that is a great feature. I wish there was a dictionary connected in various languages such as Spanish, French or Latin (I have Nook books in those languages); I am sure it is just a matter of time.

    I am sad to see the Encyclopedia Britannica print edition end. But really the "New Britannica" was never as nice as the "Old Britannica". The writing has been on the wall for years. Since I moved West I have only had a CD of the Britannica and the truth be told I rarely use it. We have the electronic britannica at school but the truth be told few students use it. So Britannica may continue on a few years on the basis of its former prestige. It may publish educational books. But unless it can find a way to remain competitive and interesting to youth it will eventually go on the wayside. But books in some form will remain. And if BOOKS disappear then Western Civilization will really be ending.

  5. Martin, as much as I respect you, I very much disagree with this. The encyclopedia was always a diabolic fiction–the belief that man could archive all knowledge. It's not possible, and, ultimately, such a program is purely gnostic.

  6. The last time Catholics ignored a change in technology, Protestantism arose. If we don't sanctify the technology that arises (e.g. the printing press or the e-book), we deserve division.

  7. Ebooks will allow us to take learning to a new level-interactive, with maps, etc. Martin, this post really frustrates me. Really, how could technology be good or bad? If it's humane and allows for an extension of liberal learning, what is there to know? Can you imagine criticizing the monks because they transcribed the bible on sheepskin rather than papyrus? As long as electricity survives, we can assume that tech will progress in the proper sense. If not, we're all doomed, not matter what.

  8. Brad,

    I understand what you are saying, however to many of us who grew up in a world without intellectual sustenance having an encyclopedia in the house was a tether to a world which could only be imagined. I was very in excited in 1985 when the Britannica sales man showed up at my door with the Encyclopedia and my Annals of America. I thought I had finally become a grown up with my own Britannica set and the payments to match. A big step up from the World Book set my parents had, which were the only serious books in their house.

    Birtannica was for smart, wealthy people. World Book for the working stiffs. If all you had was Readers Digest, Saturday Evening Post and TV guide for journals and car books and Norman Rockwell picture books for your intellectual food then the World Book seemed to be an intellectual cornucopia.

    For many American homes the World Book, or Britannica for the fortunate few, was the only "library" in the house. This is a travesty of course, an American symbol of decay of the mind. I spent hours reading World Book essays, with gratitude that such smart people would take their time sending their words to a starving boy.

    I would rather have one of these beautiful libraries than all the ipads, nooks or kindles in the whole world.

    Brad, I appreciate your point about encyclopedias and the gnostic mission to archive all knowledge but for many like me the Britannica was a symbol of hope. Never dismiss what gives a starving child hope. Misguided maybe, but life perserving nonetheless.

  9. I'm waiting for the Natural Law argument in all of this. Hah!

    My 9 year-old daughter just bought a collection of over 50 classical works (Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Cicero, etc.) for $3.00 on a Kindle (her Papou bought it for her; she didn't even know ebooks existed). The book only cost her 3 hours of weed pulling (please, PLEASE don't tell my Marxist friends she works for a buck an hour). She tried Book 1 of the Odyssey, but it was too opaque. But she loves the intro. material. She "thumbs through" that stuff all the time on the way to the store, Church, etc.

    I find this sort of allergy to technology difficult to handle. Does it make things easier? Yes. Is easier bad? Sometimes. Is easier good? When it means that my 9 year-old can read Homer on the way to her Orthodontist, yes. Yes. When it means she can download over 10,000 pages of classical literature for $2.99, then no, no this is a good thing. I'm not sure how she learns to mark things up, but humans are pretty good about adapting. She'll figure it out.

    Maybe this is my whole problem with things that are "Natural;" I find that one's disposition to things can be good or bad; we can use or abuse things, everything. And I most certainly don't subscribe to a Golden Mean; I spit the lukewarm from my mouth. Rather, if what Brad offers us is correct (and I think it is), that each of us is unique in our place in the cosmos, then we will respond in kind to technological things. Old isn't better. Let us not make an idol of it.

    I'm stunned to see how many books Sophia can download for free, for FREE, on Kindle. It's like a library without overdue fines (ohhh lord, the fiscal conservative argument for this!).

    Now I say all of this with this one thing in mind: the only thing Sophia wanted for Christmas this year was . . . an Encyclopedia Britannica. Yeah. I got her a condensed version (still too much money), and she loves it. I show her how Wikipedia has all of the information and then some. I even let her watch me add to/change certain entries on medieval literature, certain 20th century phenomenologists, and Orthodox theologians. "Still," she says, "I like flipping the pages of my book." I can't read ebooks. I wish a could. But I must always be marking with my same pencil. I'm certainly not against them. I wish I could adapt. I'm going to keep trying.

    Side note: I wrote much, if not all, of my MA thesis in pencil (in 1997).

    "I would rather have one of these beautiful libraries than all the ipads, nooks or kindles in the whole world."
    ***You wouldn't need all of them in the world. You'd only need one. And for a poor kid living in a 1000 square foot home (if that) and with a crappy public library (because federal expenditures are such a waste), he'd be damned fortunate to have all of those books at the touch of a finger (for free!!!!!). Really, you should look at all of the free books for Kindle at Amazon. Simply amazing what's out there for free.

    "Never dismiss what gives a starving child hope."
    *** I can buy my child a Kindle for $80; I can now download most of the Encyclopedia Britannica for free. Yeah, THE EB for free. My kid can download it for FREE and read it on our flight to Cali. So, for about $4300 my child could dream about these books (the 2010 edition); or, for $80 [the price of a cheap Kindle] my child could own them (and does). Sophia owns several volumes of the EB; in fact, most of the books she looks for are for free–for free, because pulling weeds sucks.

    Please note: I am only bringing in the utilitarian cost argument because it was invoked previously. I can make many arguments for ebooks beyond $$$. And let me reiterate, I've never read an ebook. I have to read and write with a pencil in hand (and a certain type of pencil at that), so I just don't do "serious" reading in an electronic way.


  10. Love the discussion. I think one of the points is that in 1985 only the book set was available. Now you have a choice. I, too love marking books. I desired the Kindle shortly after it came out but am really stuck on the way my pencil marks by books. Also, I have found that those sticky notes are fabulous point markers that do not damage the page like paper clips can. Besides that, those little notes come in different colors, which serve to make different references: blue for people, yellow for very important……
    I have been told that the Kindle can do all of the above. That's great. I will not bash anyone for their preference. I may even get a Kindle one day myself.

  11. Yeah, I have Kindle, and love it. On the other hand, most people think I'm a luddite (before my Mac, my tool of choice was a 1928 Underwood). The best truck ever built was a 1950 GMC. The Right way to kick a football is straight-on. Most people call me an isolationist. I believe in a prudent foreign policy and hate empire. My favorite philosopher is Yogi Berra: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." I think Daniel Crandall and Justin are snobs. So there.

  12. Well, John, I consider you a friend, so I think this prima facie negates your claim.

    Ahoy, polloi. I hope all is well.


  13. And, Winston, for what it's worth, we had a 1960s set of World Book encyclopedias, and I absorbed all I could from them. Loved them. I still have a late 70s set in our house in Hillsdale, inherited from some close Kansas friends. We also had and have The Great Books, though Cicero and Burke are missing! My point was–a change in technology is to be lamented ONLY if we fail to sanctify it. We should see this massive change in publishing as an amazing opportunity to break the monopoly traditional publishers have held for a long time. With iBooks, CSS5.5, etc., we have the opportunity to get serious ideas out in ways we couldn't have 25 years ago.

  14. I'm not against you, Winston. Don't let it be said I'm one to destroy the dreams of a kid. As I wrote, I loved our set of World Book encyclopedias. Maps, illustrations, articles, were very important to me. I just think the new technology will allow us to do even more–if we embrace it and attempt to master it.

  15. Sadly, Dr. Birzer, you seem to be missing a significant element in Mr. Cothran's essay. It is not that epublishing is evil or that there are not some advantages to ereaders. As you know I use my iPad to read the occasional novel or reread Dr. Kirk while in a waiting room, etc., so I am not opposed to their use nor unaware of their benefits. No, I believe Mr. Cothran is correct to share a sense of loss of the presence of real, physical, books. I don't form attachements to ebooks just like I'm not interested in a virtual woman. I see the convenience, but given my druthers I would rather have the real thing. Touch and smell matter. Being able to share a book with a friend that has my marginalia in it is more real to me anything electronic.

    There is also the serious problem of the distraction of electronic media which constantly remind us of other sites or pages available. Studies have shown people who read on their computer regularly stop to check email, etc. The current generation of college students find it harder to read at length as they often switch screens to check on something else more "urgent."

    I publish an on-line journal and I appreciate the economic efficiencies of electronic media. However, I miss the era of good journals coming in the mail. Most of the best ones have either stopped publishing or are in electronic form only. We live in an age where the intelligent common reader is distracted by electronic media, both in a sense of "urgent" communication and entertainment. It is a difficult time for serious books and serious journals.

    In this case Britannica did not just augment their offerings with epublishing, it reduced its offerings by eliminating print publication. I think it is legitimate to see this as a diminishment of our choices, both from a nostalgic perspective and from the simple choice of options for the reader. I believe this is a trend which we will see continue as real books are replaced by ebook only offerings.

    I close by offering a link to a post, one which I am very fond of, by the historian and philosopher Will Durant. An Ode to Great Books & A Beautiful Library:

    By the way I own his wonderful history of civilization in a beautiful Easton Press leather edition. This is a jewel in my personal library (some 3000 books and still growing!). I also own a version of this in a pdf format that is searchable for research purposes. I love the convenience of the pdf version but I love the very fine leather edition, with ribbons and gilded pages, much much more.

  16. Dr. Birzer, I could never see you as a dream destroyer. I do see you as a dream maker and a fabulist who shares full technicolor gifts of imagination and fancy.

    I share your hope that new technology will allow us to explore the true, the good and the beautiful with open eyes, ears and hearts. My concern is that instead of us mastering new technology it will master us. There is a history of this happening. Remember the wonderful educational possibilites of a television in the home of every boy and girl? How did that work out?

  17. Dr. Birzer, I proclaim proudly that I dislike modernist poetry. The Wasteland, as you know, is not read as Eliot wrote it but as Ezra Pound butchered it. That is my opinion based on no expertise in the field.

  18. Well, Justin certainly put me down! Good job, friend! "The Wasteland," by the way, is just that. It is not necessary to approve of my sins just because you like something that I once did. I don't care if somebody butchered the poem or not; it is unintelligible, pretentious, and gives no purpose to the later life that he gave us in "Cats".

  19. Especially for a longer work (like the Summa Theologica), I would love love love a Nook/ Kindle. Otherwise, I too prefer bound books – and pens, when marking them! Technology isn't the downfall – it's when the great classics are no longer read and cherished! Or worse: replaced!!

  20. Winston: What a wonderful commentary on Will and Ariel Durant's STORY OF CIVILIZATION. Durant was a great writer; he knew more about classical and world literature than anyone of his time and adding to this he knew a lot about history, architecture and society. I also have a collection of Easton Press books in my library though I am not so lucky as to have Will Durant's works in that format. But I enjoy having great works -The Aeneid, poems of Burns, great histories, Steven Vincent Benet's John Brown's body- in fine,permanet leather bound edition. I agree with you that electronic versions are convenient but they are not inspirational nor loveable. Books I really like I would want to have as hardcovers. Books I really like I have autographed by the authors. When TV came out people said the movies were dead and radio was dead but that hasn't happened. Classics movies have found a new life on TCM and on DVD. I don't know about other people here but I love classic films. I find most recent films unsatisfying. We like THE KING'S SPEECH and thought it was very well done but I would rate it only 3 1/2 stars. During the heyday of Hollywood 1935-1970 I don't think it would have even been in the top five of films most years. Some good films and programs are being made (I enjoy National Geographic and History Channel documentaries) but most of popular TV is a moral and cultural wasteland. I remember the old World Book -it was a notch below the Encylopedia Britannica (we had the junior edition at home in Spanish and English) but I spent many hours reading it in my 5th grade classroom after I finished my school work. The only research materials we had in the classroom itself were that and the dictionaries (American Heritage). Our rural public library was very modest and as I recall I mostly read sports biographies and military hero biograhies. As a teacher I enjoy having paperbacks and discarded texts in boxes to give to students so they can have their own copy of the Odyssey. But I think the important thing is having a desire to read and think and explore and learn. If student have that they will continue to read on their own. Our real problem today is that students have so many hedonist distractions that they do not enjoy or even begin to know how to enjoy simple joys of reading and reciting speeches and poetry. I enjoy the IMAGINATIVE CONSERVATIVE and the intelligent commentaries here. I have had the opportunity to meet Dr. Birzer on a couple of occasions and I admire his work greatly. I believe he has the ability to write what will be enduring contributions to our understanding of literature and history.

  21. Winston , I agree with you that there is something INSPIRATIONAL about a real well-bound book. Also they are more personal. I have books that belonged to my grandfather or father. I have books that belonged to John Robertson who worked with Thomas Edision. Uncle Johnny as my father called him survived WWI but was killed during the Clyde Blitz in May 1941. I have a book of Kipling stained by the mud of Ypres. I have books that have traveled the world with me (I always travelled with a a small suitcase of books. Similarly, there is something unforgettable about seeing a great play or opera IN PERSON. Next to that there is something inspirational about seeing a great movie in the theatre. I saw NORTH BY NORTHWEST at the Radio City Music Hall in 1959 or 1960 with thousands in the audience; people applauded at the end! It was unforgettable in stereo and on the big screen. I saw LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (twice) in Cinerama; I saw the premiere of PATTON at the old Criterion in New York. No DVD showing or TV showing really matched the excitement of those performances. Similarly I think the electronic version is colder and better suited for ephemeral works. As far as advertisement I recommend the NOOK because the NOOK has no advertisements or distractions at all. And the same way I love the telephone and I love email but there is nothing like the physical presence of a friend or dear loved one. And it is the same way with a book -I just love the warm, physical presence of a book. That's one love affair which will never end as long as I can live. The Vikings wanted to die with a sword in their hands; when I die I hope to have my family, my rosary near and a favorite book at hand.

  22. Brad, et al.,

    I'm afraid that one thing new reading technologies have not done (and the fact that I'm even implying that reading a book is a "reading technology" pains me greatly) is to contribute to the care with which we read. I assumed readers would see the intentional hypberbole implicit in many of my remarks here, a device which I had hoped would be clear not only from the misanthropic way I stated my case, but from my brief discussion of the invention of writing and movable type.

    But maybe my irony should be reserved for my own blog, from which this post came, where my readers are used to this from me.

    In any case, Brad's question about technology being good or bad seems to me to be very much beside the point. A thing can have good or bad consequences without itself being good or bad. And did I hear Brad ask how a technology can be good or bad on the very same thread in which he declares new reading technologies to be good?

    I don't completely disagree with Brad's point that the encyclopedia is a "diabolic fiction," but I was merely using Britannica as a symbol of the digital revolution. But I do wonder how, if it is a diabolical fiction, it be good for it to be digitized and made more accessible.

    As Neil Postman pointed out in his essay "Informing Ourselves to Death," "After all, anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that technological change is always a Faustian bargain: Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure. A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided."

    My own intentionally overstated protest is an acknowledgement of the discomfort I feel about the bad changes this new technology could bring, but I readily admit (as I did in the post) that there can also be benefits.

    But one thing I would (along with Postman) categorically reject is the idea that we should uncritically "embrace" this new technology.

    If there really are bad things to come from a technology, they will be accentuated, not discouraged, by simply accepting it without thinking.

  23. Martin, I can agree with you to a point; I have two Kindles and over 600 printed books on shelves in my den at home (after giving hundreds away over the last two years). It's the category of the book which dictates for me which medium to use – electronic or paper.

    If I'm getting a book from one of my favorite fiction writers, it's electronic. I can just sit back and read straight through with no need to reread any of the pages I've already read. It's easy and convenient.

    But, if it's a topic where I'll be really digging into, jumping around in the text, and will want for a quick reference, (such as Christian theology, world history, etc) then it's got to be paper.

    The Kindle does not work for reference material, it's way too cumbersome and time consuming to back out of the page you're on and for something that you remember that was "around here somewhere…".

    I don't see paper books going away any time soon; with me in my 50's, hopefully the day paper books disappear, I'll be long gone!

  24. I should add that, being a professional educator, I may perhaps be forgiven for being excessively wary of the promiscuous effects of new digital technology. There is growing evidence that for good students it is profitable, but for bad students it can be, and often is, a plague.

    I have heard otherwise lucid educators extolling the potential benefits of every child having an iPad. I can't imagine a more destructive idea for the vast numbers of mediocre and less-than-mediocre students out there.

    With digitalization comes distraction, and the last thing these students need is distraction. I also suspect that technology is one of the chief contributors to ADHD and other syndromes implicating the lack of ability to concentrate.

    In fact, I will here propose a test for my hypothesis (and, because of the lack of research in this area, I will have to settle for hypothesis):

    Get a group of students, give them iPads or whatever other new reading technology you like, have them use these as their primary educational tool for, say, two years. Get another group of students and have them do things the traditional way, using books as their primary source of information and learning. At the end of the two year period, test them in areas such as reading comprehension and critical reading skills.

    My money is on the latter group.

    It seems to me that the real test of whether a student has benefited from a reading technology is his ability and willingness to sit in a quiet room for, say, an hour with no distractions and read. If we cannot reasonably expect our students to do this, then there is something wrong with our expectations.

    In fact, I suspect that the enthusiasm of Brad and a few others on this thread about digital technology is the child of their own experience: They themselves–because they grew up without the kind of built-in distractions of this new technology–developed habits of concentration that inoculate them from many of the problems it brings. I hope I am wrong, but I fear the current generation of children will not enjoy that luxury.

    This is, in fact, why I agree with one or two comments on this thread that extol the Kindle above some other alternatives. It seems to me the Kindle, precisely because of its limited usefulness, diminishes the likelihood of distraction.

    But we'll see how long the Kindle's limited usefulness lasts.

  25. Technology is not evil;men and women only let technology be their instrument of evil or good. I think electronic books are great. And as I said books themselves will endure -especially the high end books. What will diminish will be emphemeral books. Since I have bought my nook I have not bought a single magazine or paperback or newspaper on the newstand.

  26. Interesting article, parts I agree with, parts I don't.

    I just got a kindle recently and it's pretty good, but I have it for the sole purpose of buying certain books that are only available as ebooks. The kindle will never replace the codex for me, however. Indeed all books that are available to me in printed editions, I buy them instead of ebooks. Simply put books still kick ebooks butt.

    And as for School kids lugging around books, that is not joke. When I was in middle/high school, we really did have to lug around a ton of books, our bookbags had to have weighed close to 50 pounds at least. My back will testify on that one!

  27. The fall of Britanicca, the rise of Memoria?

    Dr. Birzer made the key point here: "as long as electricity survives…"
    I don't expect the availability of electricity to survive the next couple of centuries. I would also argue that, no, it doesn't mean the end of humanity.

    If I'm fortunate enough to survive the Simplification, I'll happily join Martin's Order of Leibowitz.

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