Home > Uncategorized > What is a book?

What is a book?

Actually, I think the question I want to ask is, “What’s the best format to use for books we want to study?”  I find this question disquieting.  I love conversations about curriculum–what to read, how to teach it, how much is too much, etc.  And I feel competent to make decisions about those matters on behalf of young people.  When we’re talking about form rather than content–what to read in a physical sense–I’m full of doubt and confusion.  I’ll use today’s post to process some thoughts and see if readers care to comment. 

The Status Quo

I believe in the policy of my English Department, which requires students (at least theoretically) to buy a new, clean, paper copy of each novel we read in class.  So although paper editions of Things Fall Apart, The Inferno, and The Great Gatsby could easily be passed down from one year to the next, we discourage that practice.  Why?  Because we want students to carve their own path through a book.  The whole point is to learn to identify the important events, gestures, and turns of phrase; to savor the images and descriptions in their own way; to make the connections and ask the questions that occur to them alone.  It’s not the book that’s important, it’s the process of engagement with the book.  When this process is working well, the result is a well marked, individualized copy of a book, one that we hope will stay on a student’s shelf for a long time to come.  My colleague Lanis Wilson said in an email exchange on this subject, “Every home should have a copy of Pride and Prejudice.”  I think I’d add that every home should have a well marked copy of Pride and Prejudice.

It’s the marked up copy that’s valuable.  It enables you to go back and read not just the work, but your reading of the work, to go back and find the one passage that sticks in your mind because you put an asterisk or a note in the margin.  And when you lend this well marked copy to someone, or your spouse or child picks it up, that other reader discovers a part of you, not just a work by a famous author. 

How often does this really happen?  I guess not that often.  But it happens, and it matters.  And as long as we have houses big enoug to hold shelves of books, they hold the possibility of such happenings.  To a good reader, books on the shelf are familiar and reassuring, and sometimes the possibility of rereading or lending books is meaningful in itself.

What about digital books?

I think digital books are good for information, which could make them appropriate for many academic disciplines.  And I think they’re fine for recreational reading.   It’s that “marking up thing” I struggle with.  Digital books do offer the means for annotation, and it’s pretty cool to image a personal “library” of annotations saved separately from the books themselves.  One could share the annotations and keep them at the same time, save them and not clutter up a house.  And I think digital books can give students that long, linear experience of reading that I think is still valuable; it’s important to be able to follow and develop a line of thought, however much our world expands the possibilities for lateral connections.

And here I come to the limit of my ability to be rational on the subject.   I’m not emotionally ready to give up print on paper.  I would feel lost without books around me.  But will this be true for today’s children?  I suspect not.   I suspect we’re quickly approaching the time when print books will go the way of hand copied books in the 17th century.  It won’t be hard for me to learn to teach from digital editions of books.  But I don’t think I’ll willingly give up print in my personal life.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,
  1. Donna Ladkin
    July 3, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    Hi T!

    I love the questions you are posing here. Especially since like you, I hate the idea of giving up printed books. One of the delights I’ve had is re-reading philosophy books I bought while at Yale and finding my own notes in them. It makes me remember that I ‘understood’ that once. Maybe. Or my 19-year old self sort of made sense of it.

    Now I find I keep an electronic version of most articles I read, and I have disciplined myself to keep digital notes —these are good–and easily sendable to students and colleagues, but not quite so personal. The blood sweat and tears that get conveyed by certain colours of marker and tiny scribbles aren’t quite there…

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: