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Why Books?

What does a book have that a kindle doesn’t? It partly depends on your purpose. If it is merely to scrape the propositional information from the text then any medium for transmitting that information seems as good as any other. But there are problems.

As a partisan for poetry it is poems I think about most. The rule with a poem is everything (potentially) signifies. A poem is not just propositional content, but also sound, the relationship to the white space of the page, the spatial relationships between parts of the poem, how your eye reads ahead and behind itself, what there is on the facing page. These things are not format independent. True, you can write a good poem which is purely aural, or a good poem which is purely informational, or a good poem which is purely visual- but most of what I like best is all these things at once. A printed poem is a whole structure, a gestalt, which is at least radically altered and (if the change of format is not part of the poetic process) probably degraded by ripping it into the eworld. In effect this reiterates in the electronic context Frost’s old saw about ‘what gets lost in translation’.

That plea from the heart has to be taken with qualification. First, I try not to be a dinosaur: at Magma we have started producing a Kindle edition of the magazine, pretty much the first UK poetry magazine to do so. With a few exceptions it is able to retain line breaks and illustrations, although as epublishers will know preserving poems in these formats requires care and attention – it requires us to check continually how close we can get to the primacy of the hard-copy experience. And of course it is much better to read the electronic version than not to read the magazine at all! Second, it is possible to compose digitally native poems, there is a thriving community doing exactly that. These are works that could not be rendered satisfactorily as ink-on-dead-trees. I think it is just as obvious that the ink-on-dead-trees poem is not entirely satisfactorily rendered in a digital form.

I am on shakier ground when it comes to the novel – although some novels’ use of the page is integral to them as art works (House of Leaves is an obvious example – but it all started long ago – Tristram Shandy’s black page of mourning) they remain a minority. Perhaps the feel of orientation in a long prose work that I get from a paperback book will come to me on an eReader in time (mine’s a Kobo, because I object to the Amazon quasi-monopoly)  or perhaps not, at least for generations raised on the book. But I am happier to admit that the reading experience of the novel may be just as good (for most novels) on an electronic device.

What about the factual? Surely indexable, searchable electronic media have all the cards here? Actually I don’t think so, and my views are informed a little by the teaching that I do.

Looking for information in a book is more difficult than finding it on line – but the effort may be good. It may imprint the result more firmly in us (as active learning always does) it may lead to many serendipitous discoveries as we search, it teaches us how to skim sources, it shows the information in its context as a stage of argument/classification/detail in a wider work. None of these properties are entirely available in an electronic world that takes you straight to a page containing the search term. I find my students far too prone to make contextual errors – for example mistaking homonyms, quoting in a vacuum – when they rely on electronic search. More disturbingly the capacity to follow an extended argument through a philosophical paper seems wholly lacking in some younger students. It is as though they have never read anything complete – they expect everything the world has to offer to appear bite-sized, self-contained, and mostly in pictures.

I think we still need books. Children still need to be really familiar with how to use them well, so they can become students capable of deeper study. A generation (mine) which still has fifty years to go on this planet will always prefer them. And poetry written for the page needs to be read on the page. On the other hand I agree that we all need to be taught more systematically how to navigate digital information. I have no doubt that the balance of material in libraries will and should move further in the direction of electronic media – but not all the way, not yet and not ever.