Which would you prefer: a library or a library in your hand?
Out of all my years of schooling, I have used electronics for class the most this year. The same goes for the library.
Out of all my years of schooling, I have used electronics for class the most this year. The same goes for the library. Perhaps this mixed polarization will allow me to point out a direction of use for the spectrum of technology, perhaps not. Hopefully I can ignore the history of books and electronics to avoid nostalgic bias and consider the objects as they exist.
I can think of three things (at least) that separate books from electronic media:
Spatial limits: For the e-reader’s boast of holding thousands of books, it cannot display books simultaneously. The fastest way of writing a research paper, I’ve found, is spreading all sources out on a large table and referencing them as needed.
On the writing side, one time I grew frustrated with the word processor during a writing session. I wanted to see the entirety of what I had written, but had to scroll up and down, copy and paste. I imagine the word processor as a typewriter that compresses space: the paper exists on an infinite vertical plane, and you can view the paper when the plane runs through the screen. I find that idea less comfortable than having all your text exist in a stack in front of you.
Tactility: For one class, I regularly read scholarly articles by marking up PDFs of the texts. I didn’t enjoy this method because, unwilling to type notes, I drew on the page, which was significantly more cumbersome than writing on a physical page. In referencing the text, I had trouble locating pages because the PDF was a continuous scroll. A book, on the other hand, is a landscape, a sequence of distinct pages you can, most importantly, flip through.
Function: The preference for physical books must be nostalgic to some degree, but lodged in that preference is the aversion to total abstraction. A physical book is the vehicle for the words on its pages, and its singular function fuses the vehicle with the information. The computer, and then the e-reader, dissociates the vehicle from the information so that we engage with pure information.
You might notice the obvious trend that, yes, books have physical properties and online texts (sort of) don’t. But that’s an important distinction, and one I worry about, because a fundamental aspect of our being is moving through space and interacting with physical things. The estrangement of the screen repulses, but the content behind the screen entices.
With writing, handwriting moved to typewriters to keyboards to touchscreens. We might stand on the precipice of a good turn, where touchscreens move to gestural interfaces so we will utilize our body more fully.
For all the benefits electronic media provides, its loss of tactility and space integral to books is anything but vestigial. I prefer the library, but you can bet I’ll use an electronic card catalogue.
Mitch Mackowiak is a Lovett College freshman and the Thresher opinions editor.