Thursday, December 16, 2010

Would St. Jerome have read an E-book?

Today's bibliosite is both a picture of Loome Lore and some food for thought about the E-book craze.

One one side - basic (and now ancient) contact information and hours of operation (only by appointment as the Loome family was then spending their time raising their children at the bookstore more than being open for business):

On the other side, a picture of sacred reading and a still timely admonition from St. Jerome.

I'd like to treat of just what is sacred reading and whether on open book or a turned on e-reader is more conducive to such activity.

First, notice the posture of the reader above.  It is one of openness and humility.  The reader is not even touching the book but kneels receptive and prayerful before it's open pages.  She has a fixed attention on the book.  It is as if the book is illuminating her with it's holy wisdom.

Strangely enough if we swap the book for an e-reader in the picture, it gives one the impression of idolatry - kneeling before a thin, small, electronic object.  I'm not saying reading from e-readers is anything like idolatry, just that in this picture, an e-reader in place of the book gives a very different impression.

So can one practice sacred reading with an e-reader?  First of all, what makes reading sacred?  What is sacred is set apart from what is profane.  So sacred reading must be the reading of that which is sacred.  Presumably, our reader above is reading from a sacred book, one of the books that Christians through out time have attested as worthy of reading for the Truth therein.  However, it takes more than a sacred book to make up the whole of sacred reading.  I am reminded again of the posture of our reader above, prayerful, humble and attentive.  Sacred reading also encompasses the disposition of the reader - she must be interiorly prepared to receive the word of Truth which she will encounter in the book.  Sacred book and sacred disposition must be in place to authentically undertake sacred reading.

Now, back to the e-reader.  Is an e-reader a sacred device which one needs to undertake sacred reading?  Only when there are sacred books loaded onto it.  However, profane books can just as easily be loaded onto it as well.  In this regard, a sacred book is always superior to an e-reader since a single sacred book, never changes its stripes so to speak: it is always a sacred book.  The e-reader changes it's stripes depending on the texts one reads on it.  Do readers of e-readers bring a sacred disposition to their use?  Yes and no.  Again, this depends on the texts one is prepared to read on the e-reader.  But there is nothing in the e-reader itself which invites one to a sacred disposition.  Actually, e-readers with their plastic bodies and changeable screens scream portability, mutability, and efficiency which are all antithetical to a sacred disposition to encounter grounding, eternal, and ponder-able Truth.  Here, again, the sacred book, sometimes bound in leather, but always with it's permanent cover and solid mass beckons a sacred disposition from the reader.

Therefore, I think St. Jerome would not have done his sacred reading with an e-reader.

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  1. Chris,

    Thank you for your meditation on St. Jerome and the e-book. I agree with everything you wrote. I pray that no one gives me an e-reader for Christmas. If they do, I can only hope that they include a gift receipt so I can return it.


  2. Actually, e-readers with their plastic bodies and changeable screens scream portability, mutability, and efficiency which are all antithetical to a sacred disposition to encounter grounding, eternal, and ponder-able Truth.

    While this may appear true at first glance, it's worth noting that a common argument for the codex these days is that it is incredibly portable and efficient... uniquely so, even, among our pre-digital inventions. And as far as mutability goes, I'm reminded of the multiple textual layers that manuscript specialists bring to light for us, revealing generations of scribes reusing or redacting book materials.

    I don't say this to dampen your defense of books- I'm simply in agreement with people like Anthony Grafton- a strong defender of the book but someone who sees reasons to be excited about constructive opportunities for cooperation between the written/printed and digital medium (a blog like this being one such constructive opportunity!)

    Your argument also seems in danger of a sort of puritanical iconoclasm... surely what you say here is only a few quibbles removed from those who would accuse the woman depicted above of idolatry. You're dealing merely in the realm of "impression", which seems ill-suited for such a complex question.

  3. a) love the bibliosite itself and wonder if you have some of them laying around or if you would think of printing some of them up!
    b) mostly agree with Evan--as a librarian, while I love books, I think the "opportunities for cooperation" are so exciting! Further, the opportunities for bringing electronic, open access books to those in developing countries, even sacred books, seem to me to be overwhelmingly positive for helping to bring the reign of God. And I have prayed with others using an iPhone app when there were no books around, the disposition of the group was completely prayerful, and while aesthetically a beautiful book might have been nice, our prayer was in no way diminished. I don't plan to stop buying books, you will be happy to hear!