Who Needs Skype?

Whatever the person reads, will mark their insides

and make its mark, outside.

Book Was There

My son is one of the few people I know who actually writes letters by hand. He includes on pages and envelopes freehand pictures, drawings, and flourishes which both decorate and drive attention. I can only imagine the post-person’s double take. Tyler’s personality and personableness are on display. If you are fortunate enough to receive one of Tyler’s creative missives, you might try hard to find a way to keep it. In like manner, Andrew Piper’s children allow him to connect page to person. Anecdotal connections to his offspring bring us face-to-face from a page-to-page perspective in Piper’s important work, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times.

Each chapter ends with Piper’s children, a connection not to be lost. Piper’s children and their inclusion in Book Was There show the future of reading. In the Piper household, both books and screens are given their rightful place. Yet the stress placed upon books is as simple as a bedtime story:

As I begin to read, the kids begin to lean into me. Our bodies assume positions of rest, the book our shared column of support. No matter what advertisers say, this could never be true of the acrobatic screen (22).

Physicality, personableness, and ‘thereness’ (ix) give reason for reading, and for reading books: “In taking hold of the book, we are taken hold of by books” (2). Tangible, tactile touch plays a role to prompt reflection. Piper writes as he tells us to read; with care, openness, gentleness, and vulnerability. “In holding books, we are held together” (5), so the reciprocity of reading is a sign of community, what Piper calls “the ambiguous sociability of reading” (22). “Books cross time and space; they transcend the individual’s grasp; books are how we speak with the distant and the dead” (12, 13). On the other hand, screens have little sense, a physical sense, that is. Words disappear. Swiping screens eliminates context. Skimming words reduces meaning. Rhythms of awareness are lost. Skype shows an image without the weight of the image bearer. Fatigue is one of the basic conditions of the digital (36). If reading is a physical exercise, the corollary need would be rest. Yet Piper explains

If we believe in the value of rest, and the kind of conversational thinking that it makes possible, then we will want to preserve books and their spaces of readerly rest (23).

The physicality of books lends itself to physical human needs.

Incarnation—in fleshness—is inexorably bound up in the binding of books. Piper’s opening chapters (hand, face, turning) suggest as much; Piper sees beyond what we see. He looks at what we glace at, what we take for granted, holds it up, allowing us to consider what we assume. The atomic nature of the page, importance of quotation marks, even the spaces between words, and the weaving of pages are full of significance. Handwriting and manuscripts go hand-in-hand (pun intended). There is a “mutuality, an interdependence between handwriting and print” (67). I wrote this review by taking notes in the margins of pages. Notations are the refrigerator to my supper table: the raw ingredients to the food of my review. Or, as Piper says, the spark of creativity is ignited by “the silent embers of notes” (67).

Piper returns consistently to a subtle theme: we have seen critique of technological advances before. If we complain about crowded screens we must acknowledge the history of crowded pages (46). Instead, we might consider that pages in both book and screen provide windows to our world, frames by which we build our thinking, pieces which form a whole, mirrors which reflect our nature and folds which show our development. The ideas of roaming, zooming, and streaming have returned (they had a past life) to describe the activity of reading of reading monitors now.

Since books and laptop displays both have their place, Piper uses both. “I want my children to accept that there is a before and after in life” (61). Yet, ingrained within Piper’s argument is that process connects beginning and end. The physical act of handwriting encourages the synthesis of composition, what Steven Graham in an endnote calls planning and revising and the exertion of considerable processing demands (177). Writing encourages drawing. Drawing creates connections linked with other dimensions. Matter, space, and time take on new meaning: “Complex visual structures and relations emerge” (77). Some consider handwriting to be outmoded. Somehow technology has changed what is both fairer and faster. But Piper is clear. Handwriting is important because it is “embodied” (75-76), a labor.

The point of commonplacing [knowledge shared in common, in community] is not just combination, but repetition and, by extension, internalization. In copying the words of another writer word for word, early modern readers were learning how to internalize those words so they could use them later on, in new ways and new settings (76).

The incarnation of writing allows the internalization of reading. When we encourage children to become physical with their learning, learning expands. Pieces and parts become whole. Observation leads to analysis leading to application. Electronic collection of material reduces the importance of a document whereas pushing a pen (as I was did writing this review) cares for physical engagement. Piper’s son provides the illustration.

I don’t tell him how important this struggle is. He is learning to draw while he learns to read, and his is learning to write while he learns to draw. All of these aspects are being bound together in his brain. Were we to let go of handwriting he would lose a key piece of this mental puzzle. . . . There is a profound sense of person that comes through the work of one’s hand that cannot be fully replicated digitally (81).

“How do you develop leaders?” was the question of the hour.  My students had been studying leadership principles from Joshua.  “Read The Book.  Memorize The Book.  Know The Book.  Study The Book,” was my reply.  “Whatever you put into the person, whatever the person reads, will mark their insides and make its mark, outside.”  The incarnation of reading, is internalization.

[Part Two]

Andrew Piper. 2012. Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  Reviewed by Mark Eckel, Vice President of Academic Affairs, Director, Interdisciplinary Studies, and Professor of Old Testament at Crossroads Bible College. Mark’s review has been published online at: www.erb.kingdomnow.org/andrew-piper-book-was/


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