Romanticizing the book?

I know, I know. Blogging is supposed to be timely, and it’s already been a long time since ACRL.  But I wanted to write about the Jaron Lanier keynote, and despite delays, I will.

This April, I attended ACRL for the second time. I like conferences in general, and I’m fond of ACRL in particular. I enjoy learning about all the fascinating things that people do at other libraries, getting ideas, and becoming reinvigorated by contact with librarians outside my home institution. It’s one of my favorite parts of being a librarian.  There, I attended the Saturday morning keynote by Jaron Lanier.  I haven’t read his book (should I?), but I was still eager to hear what he would say.

There were several strains to his speech, but the one that’s been bothering me, the one I needed to start a blog to address, was about the role of libraries in the age of informational ubiquity.  His argument was that libraries “romanticize the book” and that librarians need to make books special.  The idea is that technology is decreasing our appreciation of a book, both by enabling easier access and by allowing books to be compiled and combined into one database where, for instance, you can have NGrams. Or where you can pull chapters out of several books and put them in any order that you want.  A book as a thing loses its shape under such circumstances. We need, according to Lanier, “ritual inconvenience” to impress us with the importance of things that matter, and books are included among them.

That’s an interesting argument, but it worries me.  I’m an academic librarian who works in a highly diverse institution, and I wonder what this sort of attitude toward books does to my students.

Through pure serendipity, I happened at the same time to be reading Hunger of Memory.  I hadn’t read it before (I know, I know, I should be ashamed) and I found myself deeply frustrated by many of the arguments that Rodriguez makes, almost all of which I won’t address here. What interests me is the degree to which he romanticized books and how detrimental that could have been to his education.

If you, my hypothetical reader, have not read Hunger of Memory, you should know that it’s an autobiographical work about how the author, a man from a Spanish-speaking family who was the first in his family to be educated, interacted with academic institutions throughout his life, ultimately earning a PhD in English literature.  He writes about his early childhood experiences with books, which included remedial reading instruction from a nun:

One day the nun concluded a session by asking me why I was so reluctant to read by myself.  I tried to explain; said something about the way written words made me feel all alone – almost, I wanted to add but didn’t, as when I spoke to myself in a room just emptied of furniture. She studied my face as I spoke; she seemed to be watching more than listening. In an uneventful voice she replied that I had nothing to fear. Didn’t I realize that reading would open up whole new worlds? … I listened with respect. But her words were not very influential. I was thinking then of another consequence of literacy, one I was too shy to admit but nevertheless trusted.  Books were going to make me ‘educated.’

I put these together and I worry. Rodriguez describes himself as a both a good student and a bad student because, while he worked very hard and read many books, he read them believing that they had some magic power to change him and not as a conversation in which he could engage, or in which he had any right to engage. He read to extract some “core essence” from each book, because “if this essence could be mined and memorized, I would become learned like my teachers.” He was “not a good reader. Merely bookish, I lacked a point of view when I read. Rather, I read in order to acquire a point of view.” Critical thinking was not part of his relationship with books until much later in his education.

I quote this passage because it’s such a good description of how a romanticized book might look to students, particularly students for whom a book is not a commonplace object. Now, Rodriguez is a success story. The very fact that he was able to write this about himself proves that he moved through this stage and past it.  I’m quite sure that some of my students are like him: attracted to books precisely because they see them as part of some different, special world, one that is not readily accessible to them.  This isn’t great if we want them to become critical thinkers or if we want them to learn stuff, but at least these students are reading.

But we have lots of students.  Think of the flip side of this: the student who is intimidated by books, who feels out of place and reluctant to participate as a result.  For this student, romanticizing books puts them out of reach. Imagine, too, the student who believes that things that are romanticized are only beautiful or special and never useful, and who therefore does not turn to books for their utility.

I’m an academic librarian. I want my students to use books (and other kinds of information resources) to think critically. I want them to understand that books are part of a scholarly conversation in which arguments are hammered out and refined—that all these books are talking to each other. I want them to know that different kinds of texts are produced and used under different circumstances and what those circumstances are.  And I want them to take in ideas from what they read, compare them, weigh them, and eventually come to their own, better informed, conclusions.

What I don’t want is for them to be lost in awe.

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2 Responses to Romanticizing the book?

  1. Yes, music was actually one of his main examples (not surprising, since he is a musician himself).

    As for breaking up books, well, some books can obviously be broken up much more easily than others. But let’s look at the use case here…

    A student (and I’m pretty uncomfortable with calling them consumers) needs to write a paper about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. She does a search and let’s say there exists this giant conglomeration of all the information in the world and she can just do a natural language keyword search through it. She’s going to be pretty happy, because she found a lot of stuff.

    But how will she use it? Is she just going through the search results and looking at paragraphs that talk about the factory? There’s definitely some information here.

    BUT, what if she knew that this paragraph isn’t alone, in fact, there is a whole book? I think that would make a difference, but I have also observed that students aren’t always saying to themselves, you know, I wonder if there’s more where that came from?

    And then again, here’s one other thing she probably won’t know. She’s got all these paragraphs about it. Maybe there’s even software that can mash it all up together, make an automated timeline and put together an impromptu textbook on the fly or something (okay, actually that sounds really cool). But it turns out that Author A violently disagrees with Author B. They have very different perspectives and they explain them at length throughout the book. If the student can’t pull these things apart, that will never become clear. As it is, the fact that these conversations are going on is something that is really opaque to many students.

    So, yes, I’d say context is pretty important. And education is a huge part of it. And design teaches people certain things, and teaches them to have certain expectations. So how books are presented to people has a lot to do with their perceptions of what is out there.

  2. Doug Faust says:

    Lanier’s comments about books “losing their shape” immediately reminded me of the music industry’s defense of the album in the 2000′s. By selling individual songs instead of entire albums, do we lose something? Well, maybe. But nowadays individual song sales are dominating the market, and maybe the nature of the music being sold will change because of it.

    Of course, books aren’t music–I’d think that there’s more to lose by chopping them up into little bits. But the greater discussion here is context; how important is context? As much as they might want it to be, it’s not really up to the author/artist/etc. to decide, it’s really up to the information consumer. And where Lanier is on the right track is that librarians and educators make books more important, not by attributing mystical properties to the concept of a book, but instead by teaching consumers the importance of context. Ultimately it’s up to them to decide (and we shouldn’t artificially restrict how they access information), but librarians play an important role in helping them make that decision.

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