Tim Challies recently posted a series of articles on a topic dear to my heart that are well worth reading. I share his enthusiasm for books that he shared in ‘5 Reasons Books Are Better Than E-Books’\1/. I’m also with him on ‘5 Reasons E-Books Are Better Than Books’\2/. Yes, e-books do have some advantages, but they are still outweighed by the books’ advantages. Like Tim, I just can’t imagine having to move house. It would be three times worse for me than for him. One mitigating factor is that I tend to buy reference materials as e-books in preference to books, especially when they are considerably cheaper. Then I feel guilty when I make little use of them. Are e-books making me more covetous?
But it’s not just sufficient to pit the arguments against each other and take your pick. There is a need to think through the consequences, which Tim points out well in ‘Books & E-Books, Media & Messages’.\3/ I agree wholeheartedly that convenience is not sufficient reason to abandon the book in favour of the e-Book. The medium has a definite impact on the message. E-media appear less permanent (Tim’s point about permanence notwithstanding), and paradoxically I suspect we give more credence to online, e-sources without sufficient critical appraisal. It’s similar to the appeal to “it was on television” as the ultimate “proof” of a fact. We can certainly read books uncritically, but the e-medium somehow seems to reduce our ability or willingness to engage critically with the content. McLuhan and Postman are definitely worth considering in this whole area. And Nicholas Carr is also onto something important in The Shallows\4/, which I’m planning to read later in the year.
When we come to read our e-Bibles we are going to run into some problems. I just can’t study with an e-Bible because you can’t see enough of the text at once (not even on my 24 inch monitor), or mark it up the way you need to make the study worthwhile. I certainly value tools like Logos, especially to check my rusty Greek and Hebrew, but they are just that: tools, not replacements for the text.
I think we’ve already run into a similar problem in churches that rely on song projection instead of hymn books. Sung praise is becoming more like karaoke than sacred worship. The medium has made the shift possible, and the reason is most likely convenience. The congregation may sing more loudly because they no longer have their faces buried in a book, but I find I’ve forgotten the previous line or two very quickly after singing them, whereas with a hymn book I can understand better what I am singing, and comprehend the meaning much more easily. I can’t think I’m alone in that, advancing age and declining memory notwithstanding. What will be the impact of preaching to a congregation who only have an e-Bible? Shorter sermons that engage the text less critically?
It’s not just the ‘E’s in our food* we need to be concerned about, it’s the ‘e-‘s in our reading that will have a serious impact on our intellectual and spiritual understanding. Since Christians are people of The Book, this should be a serious concern to us. Convenience is not enough to switch to e-Bibles, just as pragmatism is never enough to make informed and safe moral judgments. I’m going to need more convincing before I make e-reading my staple biblical intake. Tim’s articles have confirmed that for me. Moderation and small doses will certainly be my practice for the forseeable future.
1. Tim Challies, ‘5 Reasons Books Are Better Than E-Book’, challies.com, 17 Aug 2010, http://www.challies.com/articles/5-reasons-books-are-better-than-e-books (accessed 7 Sep 2010)
2. ——, ‘5 Reasons E-Books Are Better Than Books’, challies.com, 18 Aug 2010, http://www.challies.com/articles/5-reasons-e-books-are-better-than-books (accessed 7 Sep 2010)
3. ——, ‘Books & E-Books, Media & Messages’, challies.com, 20 Aug 2010, http://www.challies.com/articles/books-e-books-media-messages (accessed 7 Sep 2010)
4. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010). Carr blogs at Rough Type, http://www.roughtype.com/.
* Approved European food additives all have an ‘E’ prefixed to the universal reference number.