The Cult Of The Book--And Why It Must End
The culture of the book in American higher education is in crisis. New e-reader technology, coupled with the rising cost of print production and the shrinking budgets of university presses and libraries, has led many academics to fret about the future of the book. They are right to worry. The culture of the book—the culture in which most scholars have built their careers—is no longer tenable, a reality that resonates with implications for research, tenure, and promotion. To move forward, academe must transform itself from a fundamentally print culture to one that is fundamentally digital.
The reasons are obvious. Paper-and-ink books are more expensive to produce (and reproduce) than their digital doubles, and more difficult to disseminate, search, and recycle. In short, digital books are more affordable, accessible, and environmentally friendly. So why has academe been slow to embrace digital publishing? Why, for example, do many in the academy discriminate against digital content by demanding that it also be available in print, as if only a print version can legitimate its digital double?
Many concerns about the intellectual quality of digital publications are valid, and digital content can be easier to plagiarize. But those concerns are historical, not permanent. There is nothing intrinsically inferior about spreading knowledge on a screen rather than on a printed page, and plagiarism is an ethical issue, not a material one. Words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands than a Kindle or an iPad, but the words are the same.
The real difference—the real reason that academe has been slow to embrace digitization—is cultural, not material: an attitude rooted in the belief that the printed book is intrinsic to scholarship. Ink is permanent; pixels are impermanent, or so the argument goes. This perspective is not an ontological or metaphysical one: People who believe that books are permanent do not believe that books can't be destroyed. Rather, they believe that the comfortable manner in which readers approach a paper-and-ink object is fundamentally different from the attitude they bring to a digital copy. These attitudes are the products of cultural conditioning and habit.
We need to change—to resignify—the semiotics of academic culture. The idea of the book as a printed artifact is no more or less natural than its digital (and nonprinted) counterpart. Until academe, in particular the humanities, lets go of the myth of the book—the notion that printed books are the gold standard of academic achievement—academe will forever be caught between its digital destiny and its printed purgatory.
The book is the most readily identifiable and powerful sign in academic life, at least in the humanities. Books carry great meaning and value: They line our offices and fill our CV's. Students still bring books to class along with their laptops. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a college campus or a Modern Language Association convention without books.
And yet, despite the pervasiveness of books, the belief that they are more integral than their digital counterparts is a myth.