A World Without Books?

Ever since the computer and Internet offered alternatives to traditional sources of information, and e-readers began providing a new medium with which to enjoy books, there has been a growing debate over the role and function of the printed word in an increasingly digital world. Some see new devices such as the Kindle, the Edge, the Nook, and Apple’s upcoming iPad as an obvious evolution in the means of information exchange, while others see things like e-books as the destruction and devaluation of an integral part of culture.

Recently, an alteration in policy at the Cushing Academy, a Massachusetts prep-school, has caused an interesting chain reaction of critical articles that underscores the powerful tensions and anxieties caused by these developments.

The Cushing Academy announced in September of 2009 that it was replacing its massive library with a modern learning center. Instead of the typical repository of knowledge with its stacks and reference desks, the physical texts are going to be replaced with digital books available through the school’s computers or its Amazon and Sony e-readers. The goal of the modernization was to provide students with a place that reflected the academic interests of a world that is going digital, with students now having access to countless online databases and millions of books.

Last September The Boston Globe published an article discussing the forthcoming changes to the East Coast prep school that highlighted both the potential benefits and the concerns that this new approach to learning would have on the students. (“Welcome to the Library. Say Goodbye to the Books” by David Abel, 4 September 2009) Some were naturally wary of the logistics of the changes — especially in a world where e-readers are not cheap — and lamented the loss of their beloved books, while others looked forward to the changes with optimism and hope. The headmaster of Cushing, James Tracy, was quoted as saying, “When I look at a book, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.”

This story was subsequently picked up by The New Criterion, a literary magazine that lists as one of its goals as “…engaging with those forces dedicated to traducing genuine cultural and intellectual achievement, whether through obfuscation, politicization, or a commitment to nihilistic absurdity.” The magazine also lists as one of its accomplishments as, “…championing what is best and most humanely vital in our cultural inheritance and in exposing what is mendacious, corrosive, and spurious.” (“Cushing Academy, RIP”, October 2009). The article published in The New Criterion was opposed to Cushing’s plan and stated that Tracy “betrayed his academic responsibility.”

It was this article that prompted Pulitzer Prize winner and journalist Paul Greenburg to write a piece furthering the attacks against Tracy and the Cushing Academy in the e-magazine, Opinionated: Voices and Viewpoints on America and the World. The magazine, which is exclusively distributed through the Amazon.com Kindle, is divided into four sections: Liberal, Conservative, Independent, and Worldview.

Greenburg’s article, titled “The War on the Book” (7 December 2009) appeared in the Conservative portion of the magazine, and offered a rather bleak view of Tracy’s plans for Cushing and the future of books. He states that Tracy’s goals are another sign of the “shiny, color-coded cultural Apocalypse”, and added that he was first made aware of the problem while reading the article in the New Criterion a journal which he says warns him of the “continuing collapse of Western Civilization” – of which the changes to Cushing’s libraries were another exemplar.

Both the article in The New Criterion and Greenburg’s piece in Opinionated, jumped on Tracy’s comment where he compared books to scrolls. They viewed this remark as being representative of contempt for books and emblematic of a “bleak future”. The New Criterion article’s author wondered if the Academy’s Board of Trustees knows, “what a disaster this shortsighted capitulation to trendiness is for the school.” Both pieces were angered by the seemingly cavalier attitude of the Cushing Headmaster.

The concerns underscored by these arguments are revealing and speak to the anxieties of several book lovers concerned with the various digital transitions taking place throughout society, but upon closer inspection are also highly problematic for an entirely different reason. One concern is the degree of outrage with which Tracy has been attacked by his critics. Both the articles in Opinionated and The New Criterion present the Headmaster’s decision as being emblematic of a major decline in our society.

While some may disagree with his plans and his comment comparing books to archaic scrolls, Tracy must ultimately be judged on his primary responsibility: educating his students. Tracy’s job is to facilitate learning, not to be a guardian of a cultural aesthetic or the gatekeeper of public taste. He freely admits on the school’s website that he personally loves books and is an “avid bibliophile”, but in the context of the school it is his responsibility to take care of the interests of the students.

Since we live in an increasingly digital world and the students heading to the Cushing Academy are young people who are largely raised on computers and the Internet, Tracy made the decision that he thought was best for the student population. Currently, Internet databases and academic websites offer students the ability to access millions of books and countless journals and magazines. Furthermore, it helps reduce the problems of the limited availability of texts and the time constraints of inter-library loans.

The Pains of a Paradigm Shift

Empty Bookshelves – Seattle Central Library (partial) found here on Flickr.com – photographer unknown

The Pains of a Paradigm Shift

As both a teacher and a book lover, I would rather the younger generations discover their love of reading on their own terms and not mine or Greenburg’s, because ultimately, I find more currency and import in the love of reading itself then in a love of books.

Greenberg’s article also illustrates some extremely reveling concerns felt by opponents of the digitization of books. He writes in highly charged and often hyperbolic language of his fears for a future without his beloved tomes. To begin he quotes, Fahrenheit 451; “Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, Burn ‘em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.” Later in the article he references Bradbury’s classic again asking, “How long before… those who still treasure books will be treated as suspect, outcasts, rejects?” He paints an Orwellian picture of bibliophiles meeting secretly in fear of a contemptuous society that would despise them for their love of books.

While this portion of Greenberg’s article is useful as an example of the ire and sensitivity this subject inspires in many people, the logic that underpins many of Greenberg’s arguments becomes unwieldy under close inspection. For example, the very allusion to Fahrenheit 451 seems more polemical then functional. While it does paint a vivid picture of a dystopian world without books, the comparison to Cushing’s plans and Bradbury’s book does not really work.

The destruction of books in Bradbury’s novel was never ultimately about the medium itself but the messages contained between the pages. The firemen were not burning books for their dislike of the printed form, they were destroying the stories and ideas contained therein because what books could be used for were dangerous. It wasn’t as if Beatty and Montag were burning people’s books and then handing them e-readers wherein they could access the titles in the digitized format — it was the ideas they were interested in eradicating.

Comparably, Tracy is not advocating the destruction of books — he’s simply advocating a new medium in which to engage with all available literature and other resources. Stephen King wrote in his column in Entertainment Weekly that when reading a book on the Kindle, although strange at first, “It became about the message instead of the medium, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” (“Books With Batteries — Why Not?”, 23 January 2008)

To love books – the way the paper smells in a new hardcover, the beat-me-up and take-me-anywhere feel of a dog-eared paperback — is one thing; to prefer them for their aesthetic over e-readers is obvious to many. To compare the Cushing Academy’s plans to convert its stacks to online menus to Bradbury’s depiction of fanatic censorship, however, is fallacious and it hurts the practical dialogue that should be taking place as we shift into the digital world.

One of Greenburg’s principle problems appears to be with the contemptuous way people are disavowing the sacred position of books which he sees as “the very currency of knowledge”, and is disheartened that Tracy would not want to pass that love down to his students. Any person who has read a book and lost themselves within its pages can understand that position. For many, myself included, books have been both teacher and friend, allowing one to experience countless emotions and events, secondhand, yet nonetheless real.

Yet while there is beauty to be found in curling up with a nice big book on a rainy day, neither that aesthetic value, nor the personal affections the medium invokes, are enough for academic institutions to base their futures on, when digital alternatives are providing more information with fewer constraints. Furthermore, it appears that Greenburg’s dismissal of the future is similar to seemingly callous disregard for the iconography of the past that Tracy is accused of, and he appears to impose his worldview just as ruthlessly as Tracy’s critics claim the headmaster is imposing his.

The fact that people like books is not reason enough for a school library to not attempt to modernize its facility. Furthermore, it is important to remember the big picture. As both a teacher and a book lover, I would rather the younger generations discover their love of reading on their own terms and not mine or Greenburg’s, because ultimately, I find more currency and import in the love of reading itself then in a love of books.

The transition between traditional and digital mediums of information exchange is not going to be an easy one, and it is certainly understandable that one recoils when hearing that a library is getting rid of its books. However, it’s important for all sides of this issue to remember that academic institutions cannot hold doggedly on to the tastes of the past if it threatens their ability to educate their students. It is not an overstatement to say that what we are witnessing is the momentum of history moving us inexorably forward. These paradigm shifts, both large and small, are a constant reality of humanity and technology.

While the traditional place of printed books is about to be altered in the coming years, a process which began slowly when the first computers were created, it’s important to face the future with an open mind. Reading taught me that. And reading will continue to teach that same message regardless of whether it is on a scroll, a printed page, or a computer screen.