Book Was There, Reading in Electronic Times

I am excited to recommend Book Was There (a quote from Gertrude Stein, a writer who, I believe, would love this book) because almost any conversation between readers today will include the topic of eBooks and its natural topical offspring: Will books as we know them (or knew them) survive? Book Was There helps all of us, older and younger readers, to better understand the question itself.

Andrew Piper teaches German and European literature at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and although his book is published by a university press (Chicago), it is the perfect example of why we, the general reader, should not pass up what university presses offer.

Piper reminds us “that we cannot think about our electronic future without contending with its antecedent, the bookish past. Books got there first. Books and screens are now bound up with one another whether we like it or not.” Piper writes with inviting clarity: “Now is the time to understand the rich history of what we have thought books have done for us and what we think digital texts might do differently.” Many of us readers take the skill of reading for granted, but reading itself has a “rich history” and Piper’s enthusiasm for this history is infectious. The history of how we read and how we might read in the future is an important component of Piper’s book.

Piper writes about the third century Egyptian scholar Origen and his comparison of Hebrew and Greek sources of the Bible, St. Jerome’s fourth century translation of the Old Testament, and Erasmus of Rotterdams’s sixteenth century new version of the New Testament: “. . .each of these scholars was taking apart an earlier text and putting it back together in new ways for the purpose of reading it in new ways.” What troubles us today may be new to us, but in the larger picture it’s old hat. “We continue to struggle with the idea of writing as an instrument and not as a testament.”

Here are some of the reasons why anyone who loves to read, for whatever purpose, should not find Piper’s text daunting: there are illustrations, not in color, but they are there; he is young and often includes the digital behavior of his own very young children (a son not quite ready to read); his vocabulary, although at times academic, is clearly explained and generally accessible. There are enough wonderful facts in this book that it is worth a second or even third rereading. Do you know where the word “book” came from? That’s a spoiler and I won’t tell.

The tactile world of books (including the import of marginalia and handwriting) and the role it plays in how we learn is not the same in the world of eBooks. Electronic books have “been generated through a set of procedural conditions…… They are called forth through computation and interaction.” A book, in its physical state, static, without movement, is simply always there. “Digital books are never just there.”

The comparison of page versus screen is amplified with a substantial history of the computer, compelling the “books only” reader to take a deep breath and relax as they consider modern communication and its cultural possibilities, positive and negative. Piper even brings in the science of both reading and computing, including the importance of math.

I the found subjects explored in Book Was There both off-putting and exciting, all at the same time. It will likely help teens and adult offspring to better understand where their elders are coming from while, at the same time, going a long way for those elders to accept the idea of the eBook as a part of the “continuum” of the book, not necessarily its death knell. Book Was There is a definite must-read for those of us who love our hand-held books and those who think such readers anachronisms and hopelessly archaic.

As I age, I vacillate between hating the influence of being perpetually plugged in and holding my breath in excited expectation for what comes next. I’ve not read another book that so perfectly captures both concerns. I can’t think of any reader who will not find Piper’s Book Was There worth the read. – Sunny Solomon

(An earlier version of this review was published in the Clayton Pioneer, Clayton, CA)

Also available by Andrew Piper:Dreaming in Books; Brief Lives, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.

 

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