Accept No Substitutes

This site has discussed, some might allege ad nauseum, the tragedy inherent in Kindle, Nook and other “e-readers.” In chief, that they’re the literary equivalent of meal replacement shakes and nicotine patches. Perhaps all the content of the real thing, certainly none of the visceral experience. Randall Smith, an Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Saint Thomas – and temporarily of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame, agrees and, despite some dicey abrogation by your editorial staff, explains why.

One of the great benefits of being someone who studies the Middle Ages is that I not only have the privilege of reading great books — Dante, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas — I also have the special privilege of seeing beautiful books.  I was reminded of this the other day as I was walking through the reading room of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and saw a student poring over a color facsimile of a beautiful Fourteenth Century illuminated manuscript.  It was visually stunning.  And I thought to myself: “Wow, those people really knew how to make books!” In the age of Kindle, we need to be careful of not losing our appreciation for books.

Examples of illuminated manuscripts.

It’s interesting how the advent of technology does not always bring about unmitigated progress in all areas.  Flying across the Atlantic with my legs tucked up against my chest in one of Continental Airlines’ economy seats is not necessarily better than sailing across the Atlantic on an ocean liner.  And flying almost anywhere in the States is not necessarily better than taking a train, especially if you like to read, talk to people, stretch your legs regularly, and breath real air.  Granted, if all you want to do is “get there,” then the plane is probably your best bet.  But “faster” isn’t the same thing as “better” or “more civilized,” any more than “fast-food” necessarily means “more nourishing.”

Example of a Kindle manuscript.

Several weeks ago I heard someone on National Public Radio arguing in defense of books that they remain a good “information delivery system.”  Books are not as good as the internet at some things (such as speed, efficiency, and accessibility), he argued, but they are better at others (such as reliability and longevity).  As much as I appreciate any defense of books, I had to cringe a bit when I heard books being described as a kind of “information delivery system.”  For lovers of books, calling books a kind of “information delivery system” is akin to describing eating as a kind of “fuel delivery system.” It’s possible to do, of course, and not entirely untrue, but one feels that a crucial element of the experience has gone missing.

There is something not only beautiful, but (dare I say it) comforting about well-made older books: the look, the feel, the smell, the elegant type-font, the slightly-yellowed pages.  Picking up a well-made book from the early part of the Twentieth Century can have the same effect as listening to a lecturer by someone with an Oxford-type English accent: it makes the words seem smarter than sometimes they actually are.  When I hear an English accent, I always think the speaker must be saying something profoundly intelligent, which isn’t always the case.  So too when I pick up an older, well-made book, I often imagine that something important is to be found inside, which isn’t always the case either.  Granted, you can’t judge a book by its cover, but a well-made, beautifully-bound book is a gift that keeps on giving to the reader, year after year after year.

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