Books are solid. This is at once a physical description and a metaphysical one, and it is on this metaphysical solidity that we ought to ground our loyalty to the book over and against the allure of the ever-changing screen.
A book is solid in the warm way a friend is solid: direct, dependable, honest, and reliable. It stands on its own. It is relinquished by the author once it is published. Now a solitary object, it exceeds his power. He can no longer edit, add to, or subtract from its content. It has a fate and a destiny of its own, a freedom to be read, interpreted, and used quite apart from the power of its author.
The online text, on the other hand, remains within the ministrations of controlling powers. Tomorrow it might be updated by its author, deleted by its web host, moved by the publisher, or reformatted by an intern with big ideas about Maximum Ad-space Efficiency. And who in the academic world has not had the experience of going to an online journal to revisit some article or other, only to find that the journal has updated its policies and now requires—$33.99! Who has not experienced the disappointment of a broken hyperlink? The screened text exists under the shadow of change.
It’s not just the hosting websites and their fluctuating policies. All screened texts depend on electricity, design, and, in general, the functionality of the machine that enables its display. The book also needs creators to make it sturdy and readable. But once it is in my hands, no ongoing work of book-binders or printers or wholesalers sustains its existence. The screened text alone requires constant sustaining work in the present moment of reading. I continue to read from a screen as long as a power company burns coal or harvests wind to supply me with energy. I can read the online text as long as Verizon or McDonald’s free WiFi supplies me with an Internet connection. I do not “turn the page” of a Kindle. I click, and in clicking depend on the coding of experts and the manufacturing of more experts to work in a preordained fashion that I do not understand, one which results in a “page-turn.” The present moment of my reading rests on continued coherence and compatibility between the coding of my device and the formatting of my text. We do not recognize this dependence until we are required to update our device, or to buy a new one. Here the seams in seamless uploading always seem to show. We become frustrated—shocked, even—to find our act of reading at the mercy of manufacturers.
In a very real sense the screened text is held out for viewing, available to us at any moment only because supported, as our occasional and sometimes desperate calls to “tech support” remind us. We may own books. The thought that we “own” an e-book or a PDF in the same way is an illusion. In reality, we possess an e-book or an online article only by virtue of the cooperation of the publisher, web-hosting service, electricity company, Internet provider, manufacturer, and some kid writing the code to effect the data migrations that allow us to continue to view it on some yet-to-be-invented device that will undoubtedly (and soon) supersede what we now use.
When we think of metaphysically solid objects, worthy of predicates like “dependable” and “honest,” we think of simple tools like the hammer and nail, meals like meat and potatoes, warm and wonderful objects with clear purposes: axes, mugs, candles, windows, boxes, doors, altars, fences. They are the stuff symbols are made of, for the symbol relies on the meaning of a thing immanent in its appearance. The book is like this. It was made to be read. It shines with its own evident purpose. It is honest as the hammer. It is itself and its symbol: Knowledge, learning, and reading are immanent in its very appearance, which is why a home with a well-stocked bookshelf conveys the impression of a well-stocked mind. This, as much as its freedom from controlling and sustaining powers, is a source of its metaphysical solidity.
A multipurpose object loses that quality of solidity possessed by a thing whose purpose is singular and direct. Smartphones, cars with myriad accessories, chairs with cup-holders, adjustable headrests, and mechanical functions transforming it into a bed—these things have their place, but as their purpose is obscured in multiplicity, they do not resonate with the quality of solidity. They are “intruded upon” by too many functions. No one makes a symbol out of a 14-in-1 Home Entertainment System.
The screen is the ultimate multipurpose tool. It may be used for reading an essay—but it need not be. I may equally watch some show on Netflix, play a flash game, check my bank account, or perform math equations. Anything I am reading could, in the same mode, and on the same screen, become something else. This is the phenomenology of the screen: It could be otherwise.
Every student understands this, and rather painfully so. This or that essay made manifest on a screen could equally become Facebook, or cat videos. It is a common critique of computers that they distract us from our work. True, but the problem is not limited to the moments in which they distract us. The experience of reading a text that could be otherwise is fundamentally different from reading a text that couldn’t. We may be distracted away from a book, but we are never distracted from the book by the book. The screen, by contrast, is by its very nature distracting. Everything it presents is precarious, haunted by the specter of alternatives. It is no more “just another way of reading” than speaking to a person who could at any moment be replaced by some other person is “just another way of speaking.” It is a different way of reading.
This is the primary reason we feel the book to be solid in comparison to the screen. The screen is saturated with possibilities. The screen is fluid.
When everything is presented as a momentary manifestation of what could be otherwise, information takes on a frightening quality of sameness—this murder, that funny Buzzfeed quiz, this revolution in the Middle East, that argument for atheism, this nude woman, that meme. As each item replaces the last, our responses are slowly reduced in their complexity and emotional content, until finally we gaze with Internet-eyes: We either “like” or dislike. Everything is either interesting or uninteresting. We are stimulated or not stimulated. There are many causes of the homogenization of all knowledge into the sphere of interest, but the screen makes it eminently possible by presenting everything as possibly-everything-else.
This encourages a distinct mode of thinking. Our current skepticism is not a conclusion of any intellectual exercise. We have not taken up nonchalance, irony, triviality, and black humor as weapons against an absurd universe or a bankrupt intellectual system, as a Camus or a Kierkegaard might have. We have not thought through problems of knowledge, God, or existence and come to the grounded and well-reasoned conclusion that “life is what you make of it,” or that “everyone has his own truths.” Ours is an emotional skepticism, a screen-like sensibility in which the world is something watery, a flux of possibilities without fixed points of truth, without anchors of belief.
Is it any wonder that even the most self-evident truths take on the qualities of the screen through which they are presented? A Wikipedia article on Einstein and an argument for God’s existence posted on Reddit are altered in their significance, value, and effect on our lives not by their content, but by virtue of being presented as saturated and haunted with the presence of other-words and other-videos, possible-porn and possible-Facebook, held in front of us by mechanical and personal powers that might do otherwise than faithfully hold up the text. What good is it for us to present the most wonderful of truths if the very mode by which we present them is flux? Moses may as well have carved the Ten Commandments in melting ice.
Public educators, all too aware of the apathy of the rising generation and the ineptitude of the modern high-schooler, wish to solve these problems by promoting the screen instead of the book. Online classes, video learning, computers for every student, greater Internet access for the entire nation, smart-boards, online forums—the optimism that believes a generation of children will be profoundly improved by an even deeper investment in the screen is wrongheaded. True, with the screen I can do what the most brilliant and erudite Renaissance man could only dream of: access translations of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas and compare them and contrast them without cost or effort; learn about every animal and plant species categorized on this good earth; map the stars with a finger. If access to content were the only issue, we would be in the midst of a second Renaissance. But the form in which content is given informs the content. The screen is in flux. It teaches us that nothing is solid and nothing can be trusted to endure.
If you want to destroy a child’s love for learning, get rid of books. Serve him Plato from a PDF and E. B. White from an e-reader. Banish from his formative years any experience of objects that incarnate immaterial thought. Remove the impractical, antiquated book in all its stubborn solidity, and encourage the child to dive into the flux wherein everything could be otherwise. If we do this absolutely, if we ensure that not even the rumor of books reaches our rising generation, we will create a new man for the digital age: a puddle of disconnected thoughts pretending to have a head.
Marc Barnes is a graduate student in philosophy at The Franciscan University of Steubenville and is the author of the blog “Bad Catholic.”