In the print versus digital divide Book Was There by Andrew Piper is the voice of reason. He is interested in examining the relationship between books and screens, in identifying the fundamental differences as well as their similarities. Piper asks us
to remember the diversity that surrounds reading and the manifold, and sometimes strange, tools upon which is has historically been based. The question is not one of ‘versus,’ of two single antagonists squaring off in a ring; rather, the question is far more ecological in nature. How will these two very different species and their many varieties coexist within the greater ecosystem known as reading?
Through seven chapters Piper examines various aspects of reading books in print and on a screen. He looks at the physical nature of the book and how we respond to it. And he discuses how digital books are trickier because we don’t ever see the book. We only see the device and the words appear on a screen. Where the book opens and invites us in, the screen keeps us out.
Another chapter examines the act of looking. When we read a book we see the words on the page but we are looking beyond the words and through the book. Screens, on the other hand, encourage us to look on as voyeurs. Instead of being a window we look through, a screen often becomes a “metalabyrinth of mutual regard.” Still another chapter is about the page and what the page of a book does and how it affects the way we read in contrast to a “page” on a screen.
There is also a chapter on making notes and annotations and here Piper provides the best explanation about why handwriting is important that I have ever come across. Writing and reading are intimately connected. When we write with our hands we are also learning to draw and when we learn to draw we are also learning to “think more complexly with words.” Research finds that children who learn how to draw before they write tend to produce more complex words and sentences. Drawing helps pull together all sorts of information in the brain, it is a way to think and analyze. Drawing and writing together add a whole new way of being able to think. Not to mention that the physical act of writing something by hand, say copying a passage from a book, helps us internalize and remember what we have written better than if we had just typed it.
Piper also has a chapter on sharing, one on reading and our relationship to the spaces we read in, and one on the connection between reading and mathematics.
There are lots of interesting ideas in Book Was There, some I agreed with and some I did not. Sometimes I found myself wondering what the point was Piper was trying to make and other times I wanted to shout, “yes! that’s exactly right!” I am tempted to go through each chapter and mark out his arguments for you so we can “talk” about them all but then we would be here forever and some of the arguments are too detailed and complex to do justice to here.
Piper clearly loves books but he also finds the digital has much to offer. He isn’t entirely sure that some of our digital text encounters can really be called reading any longer but he believes we should not be bothered by that. He thinks we should put down our books now and then and do some digital exploring. But he also warns against computers becoming the new book. We need both, he says, because they each foster different ways of thinking and seeing the world and the more ways we have to think, communicate and explore, the better. That’s something I think most of us can agree with.