CULTURE WATCH: Bye Bye Books

Bye Bye Books

By Wendell Cantrell

booksA collector of rare books ran into a friend who told him about throwing away a dusty old Bible that he had found in a relative’s old storage box. He happened to mention that Guten-somebody was the name of the printer. The collector gasped, “Surely it wasn’t THE Gutenberg, the originator of the printing press?” The friend continued, “Yes, I think it was.” The conversation then got really interesting. The collector is aghast; “You idiot! You’ve thrown away one of the first books ever printed. A copy recently sold at auction for half a million dollars!” His friend tries to defend his decision saying, “Oh, I don’t think this book would have been worth anything close to that much,” replied the man. “It was scribbled all over in the margins by some guy named Martin Luther.”

Are you thinking that could never happen today? In this issue, we are going to explore the displacement of books by techno-texts (iPhones, iPads, Kindles, etc). As I write this, five bookcases surround me in my home office. A room like this would no longer be a feature to admire in the architect’s dream home. Yes, I am a bit old fashioned, but don’t call me a Luddite, please. Have you heard of that term? It is a term broadly used to identify individuals or groups opposed to technology. The term originally defined English textile workers in the 1800s who opposed mechanization, often violently, thinking it would limit employment. So you can call me a bibliophile instead, one who is fond of books.

This vanishing of hard copy books is occurring in three different venues: our homes, universities, and our churches (yea for the DBC library). When was the last time you were in a home that had a large family Bible on the coffee table? Likely, that house belonged to someone over the age of 80. Hopefully for the rest of us, it isn’t “out of sight, out of mind.” Pastor John Bombaro1 recently wrote an article where he defends the physicality of scripture. It will sound old-fashioned, and more so as time evolves, but he defends the necessity of the hard copy scripture. He claims, “It can hardly be denied that there is something fitting about outward deference to and reverence for the material pages of Scripture that are related in some way to the fact of Christ’s incarnation.”

Bombaro, a Lutheran priest, also teaches at San Diego University. He has noted how much less students are now reading, in spite of the digital overload of information. Many of you reading this could reflect back on university classes where you might be expected to read at least a dozen books. He says, “Today, I am hard- pressed to get them to read four books written at ninth-grade level. They are shocked when I tell them they are expected to read the whole book.” We are nurturing a generation that reads and researches on the Internet, where perusing is the common practice and a synopsis seems to suffice. Unlike reading the printed page, which requires a level of discipline in our mind and environment, our digital texts usually have built-in competitors for attention. There are alerts, texts, tones, and vibrations calling us to multitask. It certainly stretches the meaning of a quiet time or devotion.

Another author, Nicholas Carr,2 has explored what the internet is doing to our brains. He concludes that the truncated approach to texts, without the grasp of the linear progression trains our mind to think in detached, fragmented ways. Our digital texts make it more difficult to comprehend the whole story. I personally find in-depth reading to be more challenging now, given my frequent use of the Internet for research. Carr asks the provocative question, “Is Google making us stupid?” Ouch!

Now I want us to dig a bit deeper into the devotional aspect and how it may be suffering from our digital distraction. Bombaro’s article highlights a few of his concerns from discussions he has had with fellow church members:

  •  The constant urge to multitask. I spoke earlier of the built-in competitors for a limited attention span.
  •  The digital domain does not lend itself to deep consideration and meditation.
  •  Digital texts suffer from atomization (loss of meaningful connections). A push of a button takes you to a word search for the word grace. Is that helping you understand the word in the overarching story?
  •  The print copies (with notes and highlighting) could be shared with colleagues in a way that you can’t with the digital text.
  •  Physical books bring with them a sense of the encounter based on shape, texture, color, or size. Digital texts don’t seem to really offer this.

This may sound a bit weird, but I would join the referenced authors in saying you can form friendships (in a sense) with the authors through their books. I know for a fact that at least a few of you grew up reading every book C.S. Lewis wrote. Admit it – you would almost call Lewis a family friend. Others of you would claim a different author-friend. For me it was Chuck Colson. Could we take the next step and say the same for a hard copy Bible? How are we told to love our Lord?  Jesus, when asked about the greatest command said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…” (Matthew 22:37, emphasis mine). When we hold those sacred pages, we have an abiding witness of our Lord. Its very presence can encourage us to be growing in our knowledge and appreciation of Him.

I will close with a great quote that encourages us to be encouraging and modeling this discipline for our children: “Do our own young people read books? Do they know the pleasures of the solitary reading of a life-changing page? Have they ever lost themselves in a story, framed by their own imaginations rather than by digital images? Have they ever marked up a page, urgently engaged in a debate with the author? Can they even think of a book that has changed the way they see the world . . . or the Christian faith? If not, why not?” 3

Questions or comments may be directed to culturewatch@dentonbible.org.

(1)  The Book that Really Isn’t There by John J. Bombaro

(2)  The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

(3)  The Importance of Reading by Albert Mohler