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Reading as Submission

I have always been a bookworm, and I was most at ease (and probably still am) in a comfortable chair with a book or three at hand. So it’s not surprising that people who love me tag me with Facebook posts about books and reading. My mother recently shared a picture of a delightful reading nook, a closet converted into a mini-library complete with a deepish “window seat.” I “liked” it and went about my business.

An English teacher acquaintance, though, replied with this comment: “It’s a great idea but one that will soon be archaic for most folks. Fewer “physical” books are being bought since books are available digitally. I read on my phone or Kindle myself, and it is rare that my students read physical books.”

Knowing my audience, you probably shivered as you read that last sentence. The thought of students not reading physical books—never knowing the singular joy of hefting a book, smelling its ink and paper, turning its pages—makes me shudder, too.

But why? Is it mere nostalgia, buoyed by the regular scientific studies that reading a hard copy strengthens comprehension? Or is it something more?

In his recent book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, author Matthew Crawford suggests something important about our interaction with physical things. Though his direct reference to education is limited, Crawford’s attention to “skilled practices” such as cooking, motorcycle racing, and pipe organ building, should help us to consider how we use the learning tools that we are handing down to our students.

Back to reading, then. Why choose a physical book over a virtual one? Because a book can be a tool for structuring our inner (and outer) lives. Crawford argues, “There is a very real sense in which a tool may be integrated into one’s body, for one who has become expert in using the tool,” a phenomenon that some researchers all “cognitive extension.” He offers as evidence a decidedly physical example:

Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau recalls prepping his stick for games during his days as a player. He would ‘sit in his kitchen and customisze the fiberglass curve of his weapon by carefully steaming it over a teakettle. Then he’d wedge it under a door hinge and bend it until it was perfect, race outside and plunge it into the snow to set the blade. With the kettle at a boil, he’d have a cup of tea while wiaitng for the snow to complete its work.’

A well-loved and well-read book can function in the same way for a student.

Consider one of my companions through the Iliad at this year’s CiRCE Summer Institute. She brought her copy of the book along, one that she’d used as both student and teacher of Homer for a number of years. Its cover was worn, with foxing at the corners; the spine was broken and mended; its pages dogeared, painted in pencil and highlighter. As we read together, it became clear that she had customized the book as completely as Boudreau customized his stick: it was her book, a tool for understanding Homer’s epic, sure, but one that had become an extension of her mind. It enabled and encouraged not only her memory of Homer, but also her re-membering of what it means—what it has always meant—to be human.

Leaving aside its impermanence, then, can an ebook ever become such a valuable tool for understanding? I doubt it. On the surface, we will lose sight of the physical reality of the story or argument. (Where is “location 285” in the story? Where does it lie in the chapter? How far is it from the beginning or the end?) We do not need studies to show that a reader cannot flip back a virtual book’s pages to remember prior events in a complex plot or points of a difficult idea. Though ebooks can be “marked,” the markings cannot easily serve as a roadmap in subsequent readings.

But let me go a step further. Reading requires an act of submission, and a physical book encourages that submission. In reading a book, we naturally submit to its author. We agree to look at the world as he does for a time—using his senses and consciousness alike. We also submit to the book itself, to the fullness of its argument. We do not form a final opinion 50 pages into a 300-page book. Carrying a book around, seeing its remaining pages, thumbing back and forth as necessary—all these things encourage that act of submission.

Further, in reading a physical book, the reader submits to its limitations and possibilities as something real, a cultural artifact. (Crawford, borrowing from James Gibson, calls these “affordances.”) For instance, the size of Infinite Jest limits the times and places where you might read it. The same is true for War and Peace, or City of God.

Submission to these limitations requires a certain humility, a recognition that great books (in every sense of that word) might need greater attention than the local coffee shop affords. But we could also recognize that understanding such a book might invite us to use more than our brain for understanding. We might need to turn pages, to argue with the author between lines or in the margins, to revisit earlier points or events in order to follow the flow. We are shaping and honing our understanding, our knowledge.

Submission to a physical book might also enhance our understanding or appreciation through the appearance of the book itself—its cover art, for example. Crawford’s hardcover edition illustrates this powerfully and beautifully in its physical form. Most books do not include both a dust jacket and case wrap printing. But The World Beyond Your Head features a white dust jacket, just translucent enough to afford a glimpse of the image underneath: the Studley tool chest, a 19th century masterpiece of ingenuity and craftsmanship. Not every book demonstrates such attention to integrated design, but it matters here, and not only portends the book’s argument but argues its permanence. It is another possibility, another affordance, one necessarily missed in any electronic interaction with the book, where readers encounter the cover as a two-dimensional image, if at all.

I do not mean to decry all reading of electronic materials—after all, this is a blog post. Some out-of-print books have found new life as scanned ebooks at Project Gutenberg and the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL).

But as our world changes, and as the sales of ebooks advance, we do well as students and teachers to recognize and champion the physical book. Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which I deplore), the novels of Michael Connelly (which I enjoy), and the like are served well by electronic media devices. They do not require much of us, after all. They are Twinkies; they are Whoppers; they are Coca-Cola. They are hyper-palatable things meant to be consumed rather than savored. For the toothsome enjoyment of Shakespeare or Schleiermacher, Boethius or Buchan, though, please put a real book in my hands.

Put another way (with a nod to Kafka): When I face my inner frozen sea, give me an axe I can swing—not just a picture of one.

1) I responded to her comment with this: “I think the Kindle is a useful tool for consuming books–not always a bad thing. But deep reading, especially reading great books, requires a different sort of engagement. In the same way that notes taken digitally do not “set” in the brain as they do when written, studies suggest that ebooks are great for delivering content (bestsellers and popular books, the top sellers on Kindle) but not for facilitating engagement with difficult and complex ideas. Nevertheless, we are changing our brains with all this electronic engagement, especially at the elementary and secondary level, and it remains to be seen what will come next.” (Slightly edited for clarity.)

2) I’d also argue that his argument dovetails with recent conversations in the world of classical Christian education, including the idea of “cultural liturgies” developed by James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom.)

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