What a scholar one might be if one knew well only five or six books. – Gustave Flaubert
Hardcore lovers of traditional books complain that ebooks aren’t as aesthetically satisfying, that a book’s digital rendering can’t match the sensory appeal of its physical counterpart. But there may be another reason to prefer the real thing: Kindles, Nooks, and other ebook delivery systems may actually be degrading our appreciation of books and the wisdom they contain.
Elisabeth Cervantes at the Intercollegiate Review wrote recently about “What Kindle Readers Should Take From Plato.” She notes that some college and high school classes are now allowing students to use Nooks or Kindles rather than be burdened by piles of real books to carry all over campus. Besides being more efficient, e-readers supposedly help the classroom keep pace with the march of technology and give students greater technological proficiency.
She quotes historian David A. Bell about how the internet and convenient technology are changing our relationship to reading. Bell warns of the danger, for example, of the seemingly innocuous “text searching” function – using your e-reader to locate a word or passage in a book:
Reading in this strategic, targeted manner can feel empowering. Instead of surrendering to the organizing logic of the book you are reading, you can approach it with your own questions and glean precisely what you want from it. You are the master, not some dead author. And this is precisely where the greatest dangers lie, because when reading, you should not be the master. Information is not knowledge, searching is not reading; and surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns.
Readers who simply pull what they think is necessary from a book and ignore the rest, writes Ms. Cervantes, will “never know the importance of context, or of seeing the parts in relation to an entire body of thought.”
Is this a valid complaint, or just typical sky-is-falling rhetoric about technology and the written word? There has always been resistance to new technologies that change the way we share words and ideas, from today’s smartphone texting all the way back to the printing press and before. Ms. Cervantes quotes the philosopher Plato, for example, who states in the Phaedrus that even writing itself “will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own.” The result of relying on the written word, Plato feared, was that it would impart to students only the appearance of wisdom: “They will imagine that they have come to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing.”
Perhaps this is what the internet and e-readers are doing to us. The technology puts virtually unlimited information at our fingertips almost instantly, convincing us that we are all potential polymaths, but in truth we are fooling ourselves about how thoroughly we understand any one thing. The novelist Flaubert made a similar point when he commented that one is more educated by knowing a handful of books deeply and well than by having a cursory familiarity with many. Search-driven reading discourages us from immersing ourselves deeply into books, and encourages us to divorce ourselves from the context that is crucial to our comprehension of them.
Information is not knowledge, as the historian Bell said, but more importantly, it is not wisdom, which is what the best books impart to us. The late culture critic Theodore Roszak – once a professor of mine – wrote a book in the mid-‘80s called The Cult of Information. In it he noted that the personal computer revolution of the time was bestowing a value upon the word “information” that it didn’t deserve. Simply processing information, which is what computers excel at, is the lowest order of thinking; wisdom grows out of ideas, which may have nothing to do with information. “All men are created equal,” for example, is a world-changing idea that contains absolutely no “information,” said Roszak. Similarly, search-driven reading is the lowest order of reading; it dredges up information but no wisdom.
The internet and ebooks aren’t going away, nor should they. We must simply be conscious of the ways in which our own technology manipulates and flatters us as readers and thinkers. We must have the humility to know how little we know and the patience to read for wisdom. “The most important thing,” concludes Ms. Cervantes, “is to accept the wholeness of a book, and to pass that love for the complete work on to students, family, and friends.”
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 2/27/15)