Saturday, June 28, 2008

People of the Book

The most thought-provoking seminar that I attended during the conference just happened to also take place on the last day of the conference. I am grateful to Anthony Elia from the JKM Library for his presentation, "Beyond Barthes and Chartier: The Theology of Books in the Digital Age". By interviewing seminary faculty members and researchers, Anthony uncovered some of the emotions and somatic connections (my phrase, not his) that people who do research in theology and the humanities have for that amalgam of cloth, glue, pressboard, paper, and ink called the book.

I cannot do full justice to everything Anthony had to say in a blog posting--you will have to wait for the annual Proceedings to come out in order to read his paper in full. I will summarize, though, the seven qualities that the responders to Anthony's questions value in books:

Tactility--the physical interaction between skin and book.

Proximity/Spatiality/Kinesthetics--you have to be present to appreciate a book; using a book grounds you physically.

Duration--maybe you could call this "boundedness". Books are linear (even if you cheat and read the last page first) with clearly marked beginnings and endings.

Sensorial aesthetics & sacral nature--the responders were impassioned on this point, even claiming that there was a sacred experience in imbibing a book equal to or transcending what they experienced in church.

Semiotics--the mere presence of books can communicate symbolically; academics tend to define themselves by their books.

Society; anthropology and sociology of books--books are objects that have literally formed our culture.

Identity/Extension/Embodiment--the anthropomorphism of books. As Anthony pointed out, most people do not feel distress when confronted with a broken computer, but a torn, damaged, or desecrated book can evoke strong emotions.

One response to all this is to conclude that if you ask a lot of loopy theology profs these kinds of questions, you get a lot of loopy answers. It would be interesting to know how faculty in science or medicine might answer these same questions. Or how I.T. professionals would answer these same questions. There is a great picture of someone hosing the mud out of servers after the 2004 flood at the University of Hawaii. I remember wincing when I first saw that picture.

Being a loopy theology person myself, though, I resonate with many of these attributes that other scholars appreciate in books. Particularly as a theological librarian, I am immersed in the printed word in a way that I am not immersed in anything else, especially since I have no television in my home. I do believe that human civilization predated books, and I believe that human civilization might outlast books, but I cannot escape a gut feeling that it will be a different kind of civilization should books go away. If there is something out there that is better than a book, I am all for it. But if it is a choice between a book-based culture or one that is solely formed by the evanescent images of mass media, I would echo the words of John Wesley, "O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God!"

1 comment:

Emily Wilkins said...

Greetings! I just stumbled across your blog and very much enjoyed reading this entry. While working on a reflection paper on digitization for one of my library school classes this spring, I started to think about some of these qualities of books. Specifically, I found that my theology of the incarnation informed my views on the importance of physical books. I'll be sure you to read Anthony Elia's paper when the Proceedings is published. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.