This was the title of Anthony Grafton’s keynote lecture at last week’s Spring 2012 Messiah College Humanities Symposium.
Grafton is a phenomenal lecturer and historian. His lecture brought the intellectual and cultural world of the 15th and 16th century to life. I sat in awe as he interpreted an image of a 16th century print shop, teasing out historical insights about the social and cultural history of early book production. He took us on a fascinating ride through the past and present. Grafton made us realize that the past speaks profoundly to the present, but it can also be quite different. Nearly everyone I spoke with said that this was the best Humanities Symposium keynote address that they have ever heard.
Grafton introduced us to the life of Isaac Casaubon, a 16th and early 17th century classical scholar and philologist. He was a French Protestant who studied Hebrew and sacred Jewish texts. Casaubon died of a malformation of his bladder because he was often so ensconced in his books that he seldom relieved himself in a timely fashion. Grafton compared Casaubon’s “adventures” in reading and his innovative approach to studying and interpreting texts to today’s digital books.
Grafton described Martin Luther as a “media maven” who mastered the world of print and was able to use it as a “megaphone” in a way that made him unlike any other “heretic.” We also learned about the way Erasmus saw the reading of texts as a means of “polishing” one’s character.
Grafton then moved on to our current print revolution, which he described as a revolution of “speed” and “quality.” He praised the democratizing effect of the Internet and its ability to bring scholars on the periphery into larger intellectual debates. He lamented the fact that few American publishers today publish books that are translated into English from other countries. (About 3% of books published today are translations). What does this say about our interest in ideas and culture originating from abroad? He also lamented the decline of monographs published by university presses. These monographs, Grafton reminded us, “tell us something new” about the world. Yet more and more publishers cannot afford to print them.
Grafton called our attention to the decline of the so-called “3rd Places” such as bookstores and libraries. The chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble are either gone or struggling to survive. They lasted for about a generation and will probably disappear from the American landscape. Public and academic libraries are now becoming “digital commons” where people come to drink coffee and sit at computer screens. The New York Public Library, for instance, is removing their stacks and shipping a significant portion of their books to a warehouse in Princeton.
And what about Google books? In a few years, Google books will be the largest library in the world. Grafton called this an “incredible achievement,” but he also pointed to the dangers of such a development. Google is placing a lot of books online, but what if their efforts to build this on-line library fail to make money? Do we really want to trust our cherished books to capitalism? The Google library could be gone overnight.
Finally, Grafton reminded us that we often read differently on the screen. Studies have shown that readers do not cover the entire screen like they do when they read a text. On the computer we read for information rather than for full content. We read printed books with the part of the brain that is connected to long term memory. But we read on the computer screen with the problem-solving dimension of the brain that does not deal with long term memory.
So what does this all mean? Where are we headed?
Grafton suggested two possible ending to this story:
1. Reading will be transformed into something radically different. We will no longer cast ourself “on the generosity of the writer” and submit ourselves to where the author wants to take us, but instead manipulate books to make them suit our needs through interactive features, video texts, etc… The book as we know it will die.
2. We will adapt. As Grafton’s historical work shows us, people have always been very good at reading classic texts (he gave the example of the way Virgil and Augustine read Homer) and allowing them to speak to the needs of their current generation.