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The book: transformational and transformed

This year’s Humanities Symposium, which took place from Feb. 20-25, was centered on the theme “The Transforming Book.” This topic proved apropos in an era when there is uncertainty about the future of the printed book as we know it.

Throughout the week, various faculty and student panels and colloquia explored the transforming and transformational role the book has played and continues to play. There were presentations on subjects ranging from Don Quixote to six-year-olds’ interactions with e-books.

The week’s most anticipated event was the symposium keynote address. On Feb. 23, Anthony Grafton, Henry Putnam University Professor of History and the Chairperson of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University, delivered the symposium keynote address, entitled, “The Book: Its Future and its Past.” He began his lecture by quoting the first sentences of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, emphasizing that at this point in the history of book, we “are going straight to heaven and straight the other way” in terms of the future of the book.

Grafton’s lecture explored the parallels between our current situation and the situation following the invention of the printing press. He explained that people hundreds of years ago were facing similar kinds of issues. Upon invention of the press, Erasmus had concerns about the press as an instrument of both good and evil, a tension many people can relate to today as they ponder the future of the e-book and electronic media.

Their press also served as a democratizing force, much like digital media are serving to do. After Gutenberg invented the press, more people could feasibly have a voice. Grafton used the example of Martin Luther and his ability to reach a wide audience through the distribution of pamphlets. His religious movement would have looked very different without the press. Today even more people can have this kind of far-reaching voice with the ability to cheaply create and distribute e-books.

Throughout the lecture, Grafton’s numerous experiences in world libraries surfaced, from Geneva to the Vatican. These experiences reflect his self-proclaimed “book bum” identity. He admittedly has a real affinity for the form of the print book. For him, the tangible realities of the book—even the smell—make up an important part of the experience. But he acknowledged that PDFs and digital media are the medium through which his students are gaining a great deal of their knowledge. For them, the printed book does not necessarily represent the easiest or most relevant channel to knowledge.

In reference to how we are accessing books Grafton said, “We are at the center of an empire, and we’re blind.” He has concerns about the lack of skilled librarians in the digitizing process. He worries about trusting machines and algorithms to organize libraries.

With an understanding of changing reading habits in mind, Grafton posed the following question at the end of his lecture: what does it mean that reading is migrating to the digital world? He explained that we read differently on screen than on a printed page. He also pointed out that we read printed text with the part of our brain that stores long-term memory, while we read on screen with the part of our brain that only stores short-term memory.

Grafton provided two possible answers to this question. He suggested that either reading would be negatively transformed into something radically different and inferior, reflecting the kind of e-reading we are doing, or that the digital book would continue to positively generate future book-bums, and that we would adapt to a new media climate.

He pointed out how historically there have been many transitions in how humans have read, from people reading aloud to one another, to scroll, and to books. As humans, we have always been able to make meaning out of texts, regardless of the medium through which we receive them.

The dialogue on this issue will surely continue, especially within the academe. The faculty talkback held on Friday exemplified the relevance of this issue. Five professors from across the humanities came together to discuss the relevance of the transforming book to their own disciplines. Each brought specific concerns about how the transformation of the book represents the transformation of their fields of study, but also of society at large.

By Drew Gehman `15

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