On Campus

There’s nothing like a book

It’s a sailboat, not a phonograph.

This year I’ve had an unusual number of requests by students who want the list of books for courses weeks before classes even begin. I’m not sure why this year is unusual, but I hope it has something to do with the enduring appeal of the book.

With the rise of the electronic book reader and the iPad, there has been renewed talk that the good old fashioned paper-bound book (what we scholars call a codex) will soon be obsolete. Like the phonograph or the stereoscope, the paper book will become a quaint remnant of a less-sophisticated time. Defenses of the book, on the other hand, tend to be based on whimsy (look at this new interactive, low-power, easy to use technology!) or practical (I don’t want to take my Kindle in the bath now, do I?).

But I think books will hang around for a different reason. They are beautiful.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPad and my fiancee can’t live without her Sony Reader (an ideal gift for the intellectual who travels a lot). But texts read on such devices have a technological uniformity that belies the uniqueness of every book. The beauty of a well-produced paper book is that, like the series of words that it contains, it is a unique creation. Every book has its own weight and feel and cover design and so on. And book lovers (consciously or not) are aware of the manifold choices the book makers have made in creating it. What kind of paper has been used? What type face? What about illustrations and figures? How is it bound?

I foresee the paper book becoming a kind of specialist item: still produced and known, but purchased and enjoyed mainly by aficionados. People still sail on sailboats not because they are the most modern vessels, but because they have an elegance and beauty that other craft cannot match. I think paper books will be more like sailboats than phonographs.

Professors are sometimes impatient  with students who ask about books before classes start. Why can’t they just wait to get the syllabus on the first day of class like everyone else? But I understand the desire to get the books early. I was the same way when I was an undergraduate. I wanted to be in the bookstore and see the books piled high. I wanted to carefully peel the plastic wrappings off, to touch the paper, and arrange them carefully on my shelves. What can I say? I love books.

There is a danger, of course, in buying books early because one might get the wrong one (there are a lot of Introduction to Literature books), so students who do want an early start are wise to inquire. And I am always happy to reply. I hope they enjoy those books as much as I do.

Update. Here is another interesting take on this issue, complete with graph describing how everything in the world ever worked.

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