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Books & E-Books, Media & Messages

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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.

I don’t think the printed book will ever fully disappear, but I do think it will more and more be replaced by e-books. Books may be relegated to the place of records today–quaint collector’s items and special editions for the old fashioned. This will not happen immediately, but I do think it will happen eventually. Many of you who are reading this article have e-reading devices and many of you are quickly switching from books to e-books. You may be early adopters, but many others will soon follow.

The impact of this is nicely summarized by Mark Bauerlein when he says “To replace the book with the screen is to remove a 2,500-year-old cornerstone of civilization…” He is not commenting on the morality of such a change and is not saying that it is necessarily bad. He simply wants us to understand that moving from book to screen is moving away from a medium that has been a cornerstone of our civilization. Books have long been the medium that carries our most important ideas. Books carried the teachings of the Reformers, books were absolutely integral to the formation of Protestantism and books have shaped what we believe today. Our faith has not been shaped only by the content of those books, but by the medium of the book as well.

The second thing we need to see, then, is that books are now finally being replaced by something (e-books) and that this is ground-shaking in that for centuries the book has been the carrier of our most important ideas. We are now entrusting our ideas to a new carrier, a new medium.

From the E-Book To…

When a new technology is introduced to the world, it tends to be introduced in reference to an existing one. The automobile was first known as the “horseless carriage” and the train as “the iron horse.” In both cases people saw what the technology would replace or supercede and gave it a name that related it to the old. Of course in both cases the reference soon disappeared as the technology grew into something all its own. Both the automobile and the train shaped society in ways no one could have predicted.

I think it is very likely that a decade from now we will no longer use the term e-book. Not only is it just a silly term, but also, as the medium grows it will distance itself from the book. The book will serve as the starting-point, but whatever it becomes will inevitably be much different in the end.

And here is the third thing we need to see. While we currently see the clear relationship of book to e-book, the pattern of history is that eventually the e-book will resemble the book as much as the horse resembles the train in form, function and importance. In other words, the book is just the smallest starting point for what the future e-book will be.


What concerns me in all of this is that Christians are being very quick to make the switch from books to e-books and that we are doing so absolutely thoughtlessly. As I looked back to my 5 reasons that e-books are better than books, I was struck by how many of those reasons are reasons of convenience. At least in its current form, the e-book and the accompanying e-reader offer little advantage over the book except in the area of convenience. And when should we ever allow convenience to dictate something as important as the medium that carries our most important ideas? When it comes to the tools of understanding and the tools that allow us to truly absorb information, to turn that information into knowledge and wisdom, the book reigns supreme.

Do you see my concern here? It may well be that the e-book will prove to be a superior medium to the book. I hope that is the case, that the ideas embedded within it will serve us rather than hinder us. What distresses me is not seeing people begin to transition from books to e-books, but to see people do so thoughtlessly, to cast aside that “2,500-year-old cornerstone of civilization” like it is old and defunct and pathetic in order to embrace what is new and untried and untested and, most of all, convenient. I would like to think that Christians would be very careful, very thoughtful in moving from one defining medium to the next. But that just hasn’t been the case.

So Christian, I encourage you to think and to think deeply as you transition from book to e-book. Think about what it means to move from one to the next and think about how great ideas, the ideas that shape our world and shape our faith, may be carried in book or e-book format. The words may be the same, but because the medium is not, the end result may well be very different.

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