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August 20, 2010

On Tuesday I offered you 5 Reasons Books are Better Than E-Books and on Wednesday 5 Reasons E-Books Are Better Than Books. Today I want to tie up those two posts with a few thoughts on why we need to be very, very careful about moving from the book to the e-book.

Media and Messages

Anyone who studies media or technology must run into Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman. These two men were leaders in the field with McLuhan being the teacher and Postman the disciple. If there is anything we have learned from these men it is summed up in McLuhan’s little phrase, “the medium is the message.” What McLuhan sought to show people is that every medium, whether book or television or computer, carries within it some kind of ideology, some kind of idea. He wanted people to see that this, this ideology, is often as important or perhaps even more important than the message the media conveys. Such ideologies predispose us to see and understand the world in one way rather than another. So the content of a news program may be less important than the subtle messages fed to us by the medium of television (which might be that pictures convey truth better than words or that immediacy is virtuous or that information itself, without context or analysis, is inherently good).

While I do not fully follow either McLuhan or Postman, I do think they were correct in this point. There is more to a book than the words it contains; the medium itself is important since it coveys certain truths, certain messages of its own. There is more to a television, more to a computer than the content it carries; the device itself is important. One device or one technology may not be better than another, but certainly they are different because they convey different messages to us.

So the first thing we need to understand is that we cannot neatly separate the medium and the message. In many ways the medium is the message or, at the very least, it contributes to the message.

Goodbye to the Book

For centuries now people have prophesied about the end of the book but such prophets have always proven wrong. They have seen that one media or another would displace the book and have wrongly assumed that these media would replace it. The television drew society away from the book, but it could never carry content like a book and thus never stood a chance of replacing it. It displaced it so that in many cases people gave up books in order to watch television, but it couldn’t ever replace it. Today, though, we have digital devices that can carry text in a digital format and do so with some degree of excellence. Amazon’s Kindle, first released in 2007, very quickly rose to prominence and it has been followed by a host of similar devices, selling in the millions. Though the printed book will remain with us for some time, it seems likely that its days are now, finally, numbered.

August 18, 2010

Yesterday I gave you 5 Reasons Books Are Better Than E-Books. Today I want to follow that up with 5 ways in which e-books are superior to their printed counterparts. I suspect you will note some lack of passion in my attempt to do so. I truly do love books and I suppose I give respect to e-books only grudgingly. Nevertheless, I can’t in good consience pretend there are no ways in which e-books have the upper hand.

So here they are, 5 ways in which e-books are better than books:

1. Searchability

I have not counted the volumes in my library, but I suspect I have about 1,000 books lining the walls around me (and I keep it around that level, throwing out one book for every new book I add). That is 1,000 books full of information, but information that can only be accessed by physically picking up the book and looking through its pages. To search those 1,000 books would require picking up each one of them and looking for an index, hoping that the word I am searching for is appropriately indexed within. Minor words, unimportant words, would not appear at all. If I want to remember the content of these books, I need to rely on memory and allow it to guide me to a book and then memory or some kind of an index to lead me to a chapter and a page. It’s all quite inconvenient and old fashioned.

Where e-books maintain one great advantage is in their searchability. Though not all e-reading programs or devices support it, in theory at least, I should be able to perform a search and quickly find a word or term within my entire library. When I use Logos to access commentaries, I find the results very different from accessing those same commentaries in their printed versions; the results are faster and the results are more complete.

E-books allow me to search my entire library with a depth and convenience that cannot be matched by printed books. They also allow me to search within a particular book very quickly and easily and, again, at great depth. In both cases this can be very, very useful and is a feature printed books simply cannot match.

Of course for this feature to reach its potential, we will need search technology to continue to improve and, on an even more basic level, we will need more programs to allow us to perform searches across an entire e-book library. Such functionality is a given; it is not a question of if but when.

2. Portability

August 17, 2010

I am often asked about my reading habits and, in particular, whether I now prefer to read e-books or plain, old-fashioned “real” books (of the printed variety). For a time I went back-and-forth on this question, sometimes preferirng to read on a device and sometimes preferring to read a book. But at this point my mind is largely made up. Today I want to share 5 ways in which books are better than e-books, 5 ways in which I’ll transition from paper to pixels only with a lot of kicking and screaming.

Now this may mark me as a Ludditte and I may eventually look silly. I’m sure there were people who said, “I’ll never give up cassettes in favor of CDs” but, of course, they had no choice; eventually cassettes disappeared and everyone had to migrate to digital music. And it is likely that eventually the same will be true with books. It won’t be anytime soon, but the day will come. But for now, here are my reasons for loving real books so much more.

1. I Can Truly Own a Book

Mortimer Adler points out that there are two ways of owning a book. “The first is the property right you establish by paying for it, just as you pay for clothes and furniture. But this act of purchase is only the prelude to possession. Full ownership comes only when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it is by writing in it.” E-books allow you to have some kind of a property right, though this is still a very different kind of property right from owning a book (it’s more like owning insurance than owning furniture). In one case the ownership is virtual and even revocable. In the other case the ownership is physical and irrevocable. You can own an e-book, but it is a lesser form of ownership than owning a book (as Kindle users discovered when one day their copies of 1984 suddenly disappeared). Owning the rights to read the contents of a digital file is far, far different than owning the book that sits on the desk beside me.

The second type of ownership is where I find e-books even more underwhelming. Adler says that full ownership comes only as you make the book a part of yourself and this is done by interacting and engaging with it. You will know a book that is truly owned because it will be “dog-eared and dilapidated, shaken and loosened by continual use, marked and scribbled in from front to back.” If I look at your e-book copy of The Holiness of God I will not know whether you have read it once or 1,000 times. If you look at my physical copy, you will know immediately. You will know because of the bent pages, the highlighted sections, the notes, the scribbles, the circles. The spine is loose, the pages are dog-eared. It shows all the marks of age and use. You will know that i have read the book, you will know what it has meant to me, you will know that it has impacted my life. Very little of this can be communicated in an e-book. If I am left with a lesser kind of ownership, won’t I then also be left with a lesser kind of ownership of the book’s contents, of its ideas?

E-readers are beginning to allow some interactivity, but it is of a very different order. Taking a note in an e-book or making a highlight in it is independent of the book; all of that information is stored apart from the book in a file or a database. Send the book to another person and you’ll find that all of the notes and highlights are gone. They belong to you or your device, not to your book.

There remains a vast difference between owning a physical book and owning an e-book. My brain may some day adapt (evolve?) to the point where I can believe that a file on an iPad is in some way equal to a physical book sitting on my bookshelf, but for the time being, I just cannot equate the two. And perhaps the time will come when I can interact better with an e-book than with a physical book. But until that day, I cannot give up those books. I cannot give up the way I can own them.

A quick story before I move on: Some time ago I was at a library where I saw a book written by an old, old author. That book had been owned by two great theologians, first by one and then by another (who had purchased much of that first man’s library). Contained in the book were notes and remarks by those theologians, one remarking on the work itself and the other reflecting both on the work and on the other theologian’s notations. It was fascinating to see how different people had experienced that book, how it had become interactive in its own way. That is not easily reproduced in an e-book format.

2. I Can Loan a Book

July 24, 2010

While I was on vacation I did a lot of reading about Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a man I’ve long admired but one I had barely gotten to know. Having returned home, I turned to a biography of his contemporary, Robert E. Lee.

In the foreword to this particular biography, author Emory Thomas has some very useful things to say about writing biography. Though it applies to Lee in particular, I think we can extend it to any historical figure. He warns against the tendency to deify subjects and shows, rightly I think, that heroism tells as much about the society that admires as it tells about the figure himself.

Here is what Thomas says:

Lee, the enigma, seldom if ever revealed himself while he lived. To understand him, it is necessary to look beyond his words and see, for example, the true nature of the lighthouse keeper Lee encountered during his surveying mission in 1835. It is also important to peer beyond Lee’s words and recall what he did as well as what he said. Sometimes the existential Lee contradicted the verbal Lee.

There is a third caveat to understanding Lee. In addition to looking behind and beyond his words, it is well to remember that Lee was once possessed of flesh and blood. This is important because so many have made so much of Lee during the years since he lived that legend, image and myth have supplanted reality. Lee has become a hero essentially smaller than life.

People usually venerate as a hero someone who exemplifies (or who they think exemplifies) virtues which they admire or to which they aspire. Heroism thus reveals more about the society that admires than about the hero. Lee has been several sorts of American hero, and within the American South he has attained the status of demigod. Over time Lee has been a Christ figure, a symbol of national reconciliation, an exalted expression of bourgeois values, and much, much more. In life Lee was both more and less than his legend.

The time has come—indeed, the time is long overdue—to review and rethink Lee alive. History needs Robert E. Lee whole.

Reading these few paragraphs gave me a lot to chew on (to the point that I put the book down for a day and just thought about it). I think Thomas is essentially correct. Looking at this from the perspective of a Christian, I can see that at any time Christians have certain character traits, certain virtues that they value above all. What we tend to do, I think, is to find heroes who displayed these characteristics, and we then describe our heroes as if they were only these characteristics. When we do this, we make our heroes both more and less than what they truly were—we make much of those few strengths and ignore other strengths and inevitable weaknesses. And in this way we miss out on many of the lessons we ought to learn from them. Along the way, we tell a lot about ourselves but not nearly so much about these old heroes.

What do you think? Is Thomas on to something here? Do we, as Christians, tend to fall into this trap, where we create and even desire one-dimension heroes?

July 01, 2010

It is July 1 today, which makes it Canada Day in my home and native land. Technically the day marks the anniversary of the unification of the British colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada into a federation of four provinces. At this time what had previously been the Province of Canada was divided into Ontario and Quebec. This all officially took place on July 1, 1867. However, even at this time Canada did not become entirely independent and it was not until 1982 that Canada fully and finally severed political ties with Great Britain (kind of—we still have a Governor General who represents the Queen before the government). Today Canada Day is essentially a day that Canadians set aside to celebrate being Canadian. Communities each have their own traditions though they all end in the same way—with a fireworks celebration.

Today seems like a good day to provide an update on The Next Story, the book I have been laboring on for about six months now. If I go back and review the original agreement I made with the publisher, i see that today is supposed to be my deadline. How humbling. Because of a series of factors, we subsequently bumped that due date to September 1. This means that I’ve got two months to get this book finished up if we want to hit the anticipated release date of April 2011 (which we really do).

June 14, 2010

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, hooray for our side
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
- From “For What It’s Worth” by Stephen Stills

Every so often I’ve contemplated what a Saturday Night Live type of variety program might look like if the topic was “Christendom.” There’s definitely enough material. One of the recurring skits would involve some Christians from the 1400’s about to be burned at the stake. They would be visited by contemporary Christians who would thank them for their sacrifice and tell them how such a great sacrifice gained later Christians ________. You could fill in the blank with all sorts of things. “Your sacrifice has helped give us a world in which our children can learn theology from talking vegetables. Your suffering will all seem worth it when a handsome Texan with a great smile can renovate a sports stadium and broadcast feel-good, gospel-free theology to all the world. Thank you for your noble sacrifice, brother.” Tyndale might have been willing to face the stake for the sake of the Bible, but would he have faced it for a Bible-zine for girls that looks and reads like Cosmo?

I’m a writer, not a comedian, so perhaps it’s not that funny. But the point is that real people died real deaths to pass to us a heritage of the gospel. They were serious, dead serious, and weren’t in the business of printing silly bumper stickers. We evangelicals have long done a remarkable job of trivializing that heritage. Maybe this is what happens when the danger of persecution passes and we enjoy a time of safety, a time of freedom. Or maybe this is what happens when we lose sight of the seriousness of the gospel and the countless sacrifices that made it available to us, when we begin to replace theology with something else, something less.

June 01, 2010

Every now and again I like to give you a snippet of Canadiana in a series I call “It’s a Fact, eh?” Let me do so again today.

Yesterday I had to drive down to Buffalo to pick up my sister and my niece who are up here for a short visit. I pulled onto the highway and, as I did so, noticed that parked on the overpass was a pair of firetrucks and a few police cars. Lining the bridge facing east was a crowd of people, holding flags and standing solemnly. As I joined traffic I noticed that on the bridge ahead of me was another crowd, much the same as the last one—firefighters, police officers, citizens, flags. I remembered then that somewhere behind me, driving out of Toronto and toward Brantford, was a convoy carrying one of Canada’s fallen soldiers. Trooper Larry Rudd Rudd was based with the Royal Canadian Dragoons and was recently killed by an explosion, becoming the 146th member of the Canadian military to die in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. And yesterday morning he was driven back to his hometown.

May 12, 2010

Yesterday audio and today video. No one is more surprised than I am to see me branching out into media other than the written word!

Since the launch of the iPad, and the Kindle before it, I’ve received a lot of questions about how the devices work and, of course, which one is the better option for reading e-books. After a while I decided it would most helpful to shoot a video showing how the devices work and offering comparisons and contrasts. My neighbor Martin was kind enough to come by and help me out (by which I mean I did the talking and he did everything else). So in this video you’ll see me compare the Kindle and iPad and, when discussing the iPad, compare the iBooks app with the Kindle app. I hope you find it useful!

Can’t see the video? Click here: Kindle vs iPad