22 May 2012

Fr. James V. Schall: "A Kindle is not a book-it is an image of a book."

I've been meaning to put together a few thoughts about some recent LJ  columns for a while, but the business of work and my move have gotten in my way. In the meantime, I discovered a sweet little lecture given recently by Fr. James V. Schall at Dartmouth College, entitled "What is a book?" In his talk, Schall considers the role of books and reading in the modern age in relation to those of ages past.  Some highlights, with my comments:

On reading from desire: 
[Quoting from Boswell's Life of Johnson] "Dr. Johnson advised me today to have as many books about me as I could, that I might read upon any subject upon which I desire for instruction at the time. 'What you read then,' said he, 'you will remember, but if you have not a book immediately ready, and the subject mulls in the your mind, it is a chance if again you have a desire to study it...If a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should proscribe a task for himself, but it is better when a man reads from immediate inclination."
I find a lot of truth in Boswell's advice. I used to be very rigid and particular about following my reading lists in order, not starting another book until I finished the last. Then I realized that my entire education consisted of reading dozens of books at once, and I concluded that it was silly to retain this attitude. Disciplined reading definitely has its virtues, but some of the most fruitful reading I have done has come from impulse.

The relational nature of books:
"A book at first sight is an artifact, something ultimately made by being with the mind and the hand. Remember that Aristotle defines the human being as that being in the universe and the only being in the universe with a mind and a hand...if you only have a mind, you can't make anything, and if you only have hands, there is nothing to be made...A book does not grow on trees...thought in a sense we can call it a living thing-as intelligible, it only exists when it is being known by a writer or a reader." 
 On e-readers:
"Paper books of various sizes, shapes, and durability are still, thank goodness, with us. They may still be preferred in this solid form by many of us as the way to read and keep our knowledge...I do not look forward to the day, already here in principle, when the only way I can make inexpensively available the  10-12 books I usually assign a semester class would be to put it on Kindle, where they exist not as my physical tangible book, but as a right to read an image. [A] Kindle is not a book-it is an image of a book."
On cell phones and memory:
"These instruments [cell phones] isolate people as much as they expand their scope, I think...Now every statistic about the 1937 World Series game is in the Baseball Almanac, which is now online. Indeed I presume today that online somewhere you can actually find a video version of every game of any World Series in recent years...What does this availability of all facts in non-book, immediately accessible form mean?...The online world takes the place of books, or it is another form of a book...in a sense, it also, to recall Book X of Augustine's Confessions, takes the place of memory itself. Why remember what you can look up, usually with a more accurate answer?...The things are in our memories, and not just on a machine, means that they are immediately related to all else that we know. Our memory, as Augustine says, and Aristotle too, is the necessary foundation of your intelligence...I presume that the visible medium that a man uses-book or electronic device-does not matter. The matter is the same. Education cannot mean teaching ourselves just to use a computer so that we can look up facts quickly and deftly. The essential thing is the immediate inclination. And this inclination can be none other than the desire to know and retain the truth of things, of what is." 
On what to read:
"I have spent a good deal of my life recommending books to read. In several of my books, I include lists of books to read-books to keep sane by, and books to keep awake by, and books to stand outside of yourself by...I do not consider myself to be a voracious reader, thought I have somehow had in my days, considerable time in which to read...What has interested me more, is what to read...Not all the important books to read are difficult. What are called 'Great Books' are not the only ones worth reading. And indeed as Leo Strauss pointed out, the Greak Books often contradict themselves and tempt us unnecessarily to skepticism."
'What to read?' is really the eternal question. My personal approach is rooted in the conviction that my time on earth is finite, and as such there is only a very small portion of written human civilization that I can consume and study, so I ought to use my time  reading the 'best of the best.' This attitude is often the animating flame for proponents of Great Books curricula, but it can easily lead to reading snobbery. I've been plenty guilty of entertaining elitist attitudes towards book selection in the past. As Schall points out, not all the important books are difficult, and they need not be a member of the definitive Western Canon either. Great Books' lists are still wonderful foundations for a nutritious literary diets. The world would be a better place if readers replaced some of their James Patterson and Jodi Picoult with Dante and St. Augustine.

Books can change the world:
"Changes in the world first take place in the souls of men. What causes us to be good or evil will happen to us at a given time in a given place. The factors that brought the changes about will look from the outside to be accidental-and they are in a sense. The world was changed when the young Augustine decided to become a philosopher...So again-what is a book? A book is something that can change the world, because it records the ideas of men. Ideas that can be tested for coherence or incoherence, truth or falsity, because of the order of things." 
[Quoting from The Haunted Bookstore, by Christopher Morley:]"Living in a bookstore is like living in a warehouse of explosives. Those shelves are ranked with the most furious combustibles in the world-the brains of men." 
You can watch the whole thing here:

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