Sunday, April 20, 2014

Valuing Reading, Writing, and Books in a Post-Typographic World

Valuing Reading, Writing, and Books in a Post-Typographic World is a chapter from the fifth volume of A History of the Book in America, written in 2009 by David Reinking. Reinking is known for his work on how literacy is affected by technology, and he is currently a Eugene T. Moore Professor of Teacher Education at Clemson University. He was an elementary school teacher for eight years before receiving his PhD from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and he also worked at Rutgers University and the University of Georgia before his current position at Clemson.

This chapter discusses the uncertainty surrounding the future of conventional books as well as discusses what written communication and books do to us and for us. The chapter begins with the discussion of written communication and how it is used in society. Reinking states that writing is fundamentally a “tool of the human intellect operating in a social world,” and “books are intellectual tools that serve the building of communities.” Therefore books, regardless of the form, must serve our intellectual and social lives. However, Reinking raises the question of whether or not this means that these functions of the book can survive in a digital format. He then presents an idealized view of what a book can be for readers (“a temporal space for pause and reflection”), and opposes this with how digital texts are naturally spontaneous, noisy, and ephemeral, which can lead to a more distracting and less reflective reading experience.

He then discusses what books have historically done for us, such as providing reliable information (since publication takes large amounts of time, energy, and resources, historically only the most “worthy” information was worth publishing), and simply being aesthetically pleasing, including illuminated manuscripts, finely made leather bindings, and even children’s books in this category. Also, digital resources are often thought of to be less reliable than print materials. However, in regards to reliability, he argues that because publishers today publish books for economic reasons just as much as they do for informational or aesthetics ones (if not more so arguably), it is counterproductive to base reliability simply of the format of the information. Instead, information seekers must evaluate and confirm the information they find, regardless of the format. Also, digital environments do lend themselves to being aesthetically pleasing as well because there are so many different things that can be done (including both visual and interactive aspects) that it is unreasonable to argue that the printed book “holds the deed on the aesthetics of narrative”.

Overall, Reinking states that the fate of the conventional book is unknown, but a bridge can be formed between choosing only printed books or only digital text. The solution he presents is that we can take advantage of the unique capabilities presented by digital texts and consider how they might be able to compensate for some of the limitations of printed books. Doing so could lead to the creation of many different kinds of books or even multiple forms of the same book that can be written or read differently by individuals in particular circumstances. His final statement is an excellent summation of his argument. He states, “This issue of what should be valued in reading, writing, and books in a post-typographic world is not strictly a question of preserving and honoring the textual forms that we have known and that have served us for so long. Instead, it involves relishing the opportunity to enhance literate experience with the new technological options now at hand.”

I found Reinking’s argument to be a refreshing change from the typical all or nothing argument that I typically hear about print books and the digital world. More often than not, the first question I get from people when I say I am studying to become a librarian is something like “What do you think is the future of books? Will they even still exist in the future?” It seems like people tend to think that one day all paper books will simply stop being made and everything will be online. While this is a possibility (although I hope it never comes to that as I am definitely one of those people that prefers print books to reading online), Reinking offers a different solution by saying that print books are definitely a good thing, but so are digital resources, and we can use this new technology to build upon the old technology to create something new.

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