Why read a book?

Last month while camping in the Sierras, I saw a woman reading a book using a
(Amazon’s Wireless Reading Device). It looked interesting (portable,
convenient, easy to use) but I wasn’t tempted. Why not? I have always been
addicted to books but more particularly, to books in the form of a codex.

I recently finished reading The Archimedes Codex (by Reviel Netz and
William Noel, Da Capo Press, 2007, ISBN-10: 030681580X, ISBN-13: 978-0306815805)
which presents the many “technology upgrades” that the works of
Archimedes survived
between about 212 BC (when the great mathematician and scientist was
killed by a Roman soldier in Syracuse, Sicily) and now. The Archimedes
is the story of how three of Archimedes’ works started out in scroll form
and ended up as a medieval codex in very poor condition sold at public auction
in 1998 as the Archimedes
. Since 1998, Archimedes’ works have gone through their
most recent IT upgrade and next month (at

2 pm on October 29th, 2008
to be precise), a digital version of the
Archimedes Palimpsest is scheduled to be released on the web.

Will Noel (of Baltimore’s
Walters Art Museum
) writes in The Archimedes Codex:

      “Nothing is more dangerous for the contents of old documents than an
      information-technology upgrade, because mass data transfer has to take
      place and somebody has to do it. The transition from the roll to the
      codex – the book format we know today – was a revolution in the history
      of data storage.” (pp.70-71)

      “As the ancient world disappeared, its gods went with it. And as
      Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, many
      classical texts, if they were not condemned as dangerous, were dismissed
      as irrelevant. It is not that Christians willfully destroyed them very
      often; they just ceased to copy them.” (p.74)

I think we live in a time when books are changing form, just as they did in
the 1st through 4th century AD when the codex took over from the scroll.
Which books will survive the transition from codex to Kindle?
is working on the P4
at Carnegie Mellon’s
Posner Collection
to record more of Shakespeare and Twain for YouTube.
I am enjoying watching this project develop.

The best list of reasons I have found to prefer reading a book in codex
form to reading the same text on a computer is in Reading the OED: One Man,
One Year, 21,730 Pages
by Ammon Shea (Perigee Trade, 2008)
ISBN-10: 0399533982, ISBN-13: 978-0399533983. This book is full of obscure but
delightful words from the OED like “Nod-crafty (adj.) ‘Given to nodding the
head with an air of great wisdom.'” and “Peristeronic (adj.) ‘Suggestive
of pigeons.'”
In Chapter F, Ammon Shea writes of his admiration for all of the amazing new
ways to search and understand that are now available because of the electronic
version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Shea then describes why
he still prefers the codex. Here are some of his reasons:

What Can’t You Do With an Electronic Book?

    • Drop it on the floor in a fit of pique, or slam it shut.
    • Leave a bookmark with a note on it, then happily find it years later.
    • Get tactile pleasure from rubbing the pages.
    • Have a sense of time and investment because of pages read. On a
      computer “…everything is always in the same exact spot. When reading a
      book, no matter how large or small it is, a tension builds, concurrent
      with your progress through its pages.”
    • Sit down prior to using it, open it up and sniff its pages.
    • Have “…that delicious anticipatory sense that I am about to be
      utterly and rhapsodically transported by the words within it.”

I would add to Shea’s list the physical delight in the art of
book making. A computer offers nothing like the feel of the
embossed image of a book cover under my finger tips. Shea ends with:

      “But what does the computer know of the comforting weight of a book in
      one’s lap? Or of the excitement that comes from finding a set of books,
      dusty and tucked away in the back corner of some store? The computer
      can only reproduce the information in a book, and never the joyful
      experience of reading it.” (p.58)


Filed under News & Reviews

4 responses to “Why read a book?

  1. Craig Morgan

    You might enjoy watching a recent BBC production, "Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press", http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/medieval/gutenberg.shtml … torrent versions are floating around.
    Excellent program, nicely put together!

  2. Jor

    Kindle is… uhmm… ugly…
    Now there are other alternatives like iRex iLiad Reader, the new iRex 1000 series…
    the last one has a 10” screen, and you can take notes ON the book pages thanks to a touch screen (wacom).
    Astak.com is going to release a 9” screen reader, with wifi, bluetooh…
    Plastic Logic will release a A4 screen size reader next spring…
    So, i think the question is not if paper books will continue but when creators will only produce electronic books.

  3. Giles, on Buffy, said that he preferred books over computers because they didn’t smell. Smell, he noted, has the strongest ability to travel throughout the mind and bring up old memories and feelings. And I know what he means – I love the smell of books, old and new.
    But at the same time, while I like that smell, I think that the object of a book and the joy of reading are not inseparable. Yeah, I’d miss the smell if books all went electronic, but I don’t think that schoolkids will miss the experience of lugging five heavy books around every day rather than one electronic reader. And while it’d be a pain to have to make sure my library was backed up, it’d be nice to be able to carry the whole thing around with me. There are things to be said for both sides.

  4. Here’s the quote mentioned by the above commenter:
    Ms Calendar: Honestly, what is it about [computers] that bothers you so much?
    Giles: The smell.
    Ms Calendar: Computers don’t smell, Rupert.
    Giles: I know. Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell. Musty and, and, and, and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer, is, it … it has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible, it should be, um… smelly.
    I totally went and bought books at the local book store’s second location which is more of a garage sale. For $9 I got a beautiful coffee-table book with odd images of America; a copy of Pride and Prejudice; a book of poems by Richard Wilbur (on the recommendation of the bookseller’s poet boyfriend); a book on modern Druidic celebrations; a biography of the longest serving Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas.
    This is another thing the Kindle–I went in just to buy a book of poems. When browsing through Amazon.com’s selections, I don’t have to walk past walls and heaps of books waiting for someone to love them. The act of purchasing books is itself a very tactile experience–I’m pretty sure I bought the coffee-table book just because it felt good in my hands as I flipped through its pages.
    But I would lay paypal money that there will always be die-hards running used book shops, until long after it is economically uncomfortable to do so.

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