Magazine article The Christian Century

Booting Up Books

Magazine article The Christian Century

Booting Up Books

Article excerpt

Hardly a day passes without someone declaring the death of the book. Recently Lisa Miller of Newsweek viewed an electronic edition of the Bible that was replete with linked maps, a commentary and dictionary, and 700 paintings depicting biblical scenes. Astonished almost as much as Moses at the sight of the burning bush, she sputtered, "This is the beginning of the end of the Word."

Those of us who care about the church and its future may rest easy. Theologically, the future of the Word as the Bible remains assured. That is because the God met in Israel and Jesus Christ acts in history, and the church (as well as the synagogue) can give no remotely adequate account of its faith and practice without resort to the memory of a story, a story that has been preserved via the spoken and written word. So reading media may change, but reading and "the book" will live as long as anything like Christianity survives.

Still, you can understand Miller's exaggeration. The last decade has been little short of apocalyptic for print magazines and newspapers. In that light, what can we say about the future of the book?

We will think more clearly on this topic if we remember that the printed and bound book is itself a form of technology. And it is not the first technological medium in which books were produced. Books have been written and reproduced on scrolls of papyrus or animal hides. Before that they appeared on wood, stone, wax, bronze, pottery and silk among other media.

The form of the book that many now think is passing away is the codex, in which leaves of paper are bound into a single brick. Invented by the Romans in the third century before Christ, the codex is a remarkable piece of technology--it is compact, durable and affordable. With its folio organizational system (that is, page numbering and chapter labeling) and such devices as a table of contents and an index it is an efficient and precise vehicle of textual memory and communication.

One testament to the usability and endurance of the codex is the way newer forms of technology mimic it. Digital forms of text on computer screens are still referred to as "pages," and e-books are organized by chapters. The Kindle and Sony Reader try to look and work as much as possible like ink on opaque paper.

This borrowing of the new medium from the old is a key recurrence in the history of media. Occasionally one medium more or less replaces an already established form of communication, but the more usual development is that the older medium survives in adapted form. …

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