What Are Books Good For?

This article, by William Germano, originally appeared on The Chronicle of Higher Education site on 9/30/10.

I’ve been wondering lately when books became the enemy. Scholars have always been people of the book, so it seems wrong that the faithful companion has been put on the defensive. Part of the problem is knowing what we mean exactly when we say "book." It’s a slippery term for a format, a technology, a historical construct, and something else as well.

Maybe we need to redefine, or undefine, our terms. I’m struck by the fact that the designation "scholarly book," to name one relevant category, is in itself a back formation, like "acoustic guitar." Books began as works of great seriousness, mapping out the religious and legal dimensions of culture. In a sense, books were always scholarly. Who could produce them but serious people? Who had the linguistic training to decode them?

In the sense of having been around a long time, the book has a long story to tell, one that might be organized around four epochal events, at least in the West. In the beginning was the invention of writing and its appearance on various materials. The second was the development during the first years of the Christian era of the codex—the thing with pages and a cover—first as a supplement and eventually as a replacement for the older technology of the scroll. The third was what we think of as the Gutenberg moment, the European deployment of movable type, in the 15th century. And the fourth is, of course, the digital revolution in the middle of which we find ourselves today.

When we say "book," we hear the name of a physical object, even if we’re thinking outside the codex. The codex bound text in a particular way, organizing words into pages, and as a result literally reframed ideas. The static text image on my desktop is the electronic cousin of late antiquity’s reading invention. When my screen is still, or when I arrange text into two or four pages, like so much visual real estate, I am replicating a medieval codex, unbinding its beautifully illuminated pages. Yet reading digitally is also a scroll-like engagement—the fact that we "scroll down" connects us to a reading practice that dates back several millennia. One of the things that book historians study is the change in, and persistence of, reading technologies over time, and what those historians have demonstrated is that good technologies don’t eradicate earlier good technologies. They overlap with them—or morph, so that the old and the new may persist alongside yet another development. Think Post-its, printed books, PC’s, and iPads, all in the same office cubicle.

The book has a long history, but the concept of the "history of the book" is comparatively new. In the 1950s, two Frenchmen—Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin—brought out L’apparition du livre, or, in English, The Coming of the Book, a work of scholarship that became one of the signs marking the arrival of a new scholarly discipline. Book history’s objective was analysis of the function of the book in European culture, and since the 1970s, it has continually expanded its scope, emerging as a trading zone among various disciplines, a rare scholarly arena where the work of librarians, archivists, and scholarly publishers can intersect with the work of traditional scholars and theorists, all members of what the economist Fritz Machlup termed the "knowledge industry."

Read the rest of the article on The Chronicle of Higher Education site. 

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