The Chronicle Review

The Cult of the Book—and Why It Must End

Jonathan Barkat for The Chronicle Review

September 26, 2010

The culture of the book in American higher education is in crisis. New e-reader technology, coupled with the rising cost of print production and the shrinking budgets of university presses and libraries, has led many academics to fret about the future of the book. They are right to worry. The culture of the book—the culture in which most scholars have built their careers—is no longer tenable, a reality that resonates with implications for research, tenure, and promotion. To move forward, academe must transform itself from a fundamentally print culture to one that is fundamentally digital.

The reasons are obvious. Paper-and-ink books are more expensive to produce (and reproduce) than their digital doubles, and more difficult to disseminate, search, and recycle. In short, digital books are more affordable, accessible, and environmentally friendly. So why has academe been slow to embrace digital publishing? Why, for example, do many in the academy discriminate against digital content by demanding that it also be available in print, as if only a print version can legitimate its digital double?

Many concerns about the intellectual quality of digital publications are valid, and digital content can be easier to plagiarize. But those concerns are historical, not permanent. There is nothing intrinsically inferior about spreading knowledge on a screen rather than on a printed page, and plagiarism is an ethical issue, not a material one. Words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands than a Kindle or an iPad, but the words are the same.

The real difference—the real reason that academe has been slow to embrace digitization—is cultural, not material: an attitude rooted in the belief that the printed book is intrinsic to scholarship. Ink is permanent; pixels are impermanent, or so the argument goes. This perspective is not an ontological or metaphysical one: People who believe that books are permanent do not believe that books can't be destroyed. Rather, they believe that the comfortable manner in which readers approach a paper-and-ink object is fundamentally different from the attitude they bring to a digital copy. These attitudes are the products of cultural conditioning and habit.

We need to change—to resignify—the semiotics of academic culture. The idea of the book as a printed artifact is no more or less natural than its digital (and nonprinted) counterpart. Until academe, in particular the humanities, lets go of the myth of the book—the notion that printed books are the gold standard of academic achievement—academe will forever be caught between its digital destiny and its printed purgatory.

The book is the most readily identifiable and powerful sign in academic life, at least in the humanities. Books carry great meaning and value: They line our offices and fill our CV's. Students still bring books to class along with their laptops. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a college campus or a Modern Language Association convention without books.

And yet, despite the pervasiveness of books, the belief that they are more integral than their digital counterparts is a myth. As the semiotician and cultural critic Roland Barthes once put it, "Myth consists in turning culture into nature, or at least turning the social, the cultural, the ideological, the historical into the 'natural.'" The paper-and-ink book is the key signifier of academe because the ideology of academe has made it that way. There is no compelling reason for scholars to produce bound volumes rather than digital files, or for students to go to brick-and-mortar libraries to access books rather than download them. Those beliefs will persist until we change the ideology of the book.

But is the decline of the book evidence of the decline of close reading? Won't the ease with which electronic texts can be scanned, searched, cut, pasted, and deleted lead to the sort of superficial comprehension that is at odds with academic inquiry? Stuffed library shelves are evidence of the value and volume of academic output, as well as evidence of our sensibilities; accessing and storing the same information on a laptop feels like a smaller act. When we lose the weight of the bound book, will our words lose weight as well? And in a shifting economic climate, how will we be compensated for our labor? Will the copyright protections common in print production carry over to the world of digital production? Or will our only compensation be the praise of our peers and the circulation of our ideas?

Right now most works can be made available in both print and digital versions. However, there will soon come a time when a new literature will emerge that is possible only in digital formats. When that happens, the myth of the book will be overcome.

For a peek into this future, consider Steve Tomasula's recent novel, TOC (FC2, 2009). It is a strictly digital creation—a DVD that, as the author puts it, "takes advantage of things a computer can do to help tell its story." TOC is a multimedia meditation on the nature of time ("tic, toc") that contains text, film, music, photography, spoken word, animation, and painting. The novel was composed by Tomasula with a team of collaborators.

Electronic literature dates back to the days of floppy disks, but media-rich works like Tomasula's are breaking new ground. In her fine book, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), N. Katherine Hayles writes that e-lit is "generally considered to exclude print literature that has been digitized," and "is by contrast 'digital born,' a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer."

On the research side of academe's digital destiny, the wiki format is particularly promising because of the way it layers evolving creative contributions. This is the future of electronic scholarship. Moreover, multimedia scholarly monographs, in which digital "clips" can be viewed as part of the text, seem more like a disciplinary necessity than a futuristic possibility in disciplines like film studies.

In his recent book, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (Knopf, 2010), Mark C. Taylor writes about technological innovations that are not only "forging different relations among people" but also "transforming traditional academic disciplines in ways that we are just beginning to understand." A prime example of this trend is the growth of digital scholarship and literature. When Hayles wrote Electronic Literature, she had a dual appointment at the University of California at Los Angeles in the departments of English and design media arts—two disciplines that are rarely affiliated with one professor. In the future, rather than just bring together different disciplines, e-lit academics might form their own.

For now, novels like Tomasula's are still more novelty than norm, wikis are still distrusted as sources of information, and multimedia scholarly books on film are still to be developed. (Without the protections of fair use, copyright law makes such projects expensive propositions.) The story of electronic literature and scholarship has yet to be written in full, but before long the growth in digital content will put an end to the myth of the book in higher education. Perhaps Barthes was right when he wrote that the goal is not to "reverse (or to correct) the mythic message ... but to change the object itself, to engender a new object, point of departure for a new science." This new object—the scholarly contribution that is possible only digitally—is now emerging. When it does, and only then, we will come to realize that printed books are no more or less inherent to academe than posting them online—and that our true challenge is to learn how to read in a digital age.

Jeffrey R. Di Leo is dean of arts and sciences at the University of Houston at Victoria. His next book, Academe Degree Zero: Reconsidering the Politics of Higher Education, will be released in November by Paradigm Publishers.