On the Permanent Value of Books

An excerpt from one of the best essays I’ve read in a long time, “Where’s the Bailout for Publishing?” by Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter:

A book matches perfectly the ideal of reflection.The tougher the text, the more reflective we must be in absorbing it. This suggests the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing—and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share. And if we are willing to work our way through difficult texts, we are far more likely to be willing to work our way through our opponents’ difficult ideas. An important lesson of serious reading is that ideas need not be correct to be important.


The online text, by contrast, proposes to the reader that ideas are little more than the stuff that dreams are made on. As Miller notes, if you dislike any aspect of the text—the font style or size, say, or the columnar arrangement—you are free to alter it to your liking. The text loses its fixed-ness. It ceases to represent anything permanent or unchanging.


Democracy is not alone in its need for the book. It is no accident that the great Western religions rely heavily on sacred texts—texts, moreover, that believers are able to touch and feel and carry about. The weight and heft of a Bible, its solidity, itself implies eternity. Matthew Brown of the University of Iowa, in his pathbreaking study of early American devotional texts, has pointed out how their form— “short and tubby, as thick as a brick” —formed a part of the aesthetic experience of the reader. One did not only read God’s word; one touched it. Many of us are old enough to remember when families routinely kissed the Bible. It is difficult to imagine lavishing the same loving attention on the computer screen.


I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Amen and amen.

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