Mom begins to read, the children quiet themselves,
their eyes get big, their bodies wrap into each other
[See Part One of the Review]
Multidimensional ideas result from multi-physical learning. How we interact with knowledge and the materials which contain the knowledge both expand our horizons and deepen our commitments to each other.
I asked a group of nine post-bachelor students about the difference between Skype and a round table discussion, all people physically present in the same room. To a person their responses were the same. Touch is important to conversation. Being with a person is reassurance. One spoke for all:
“I can be doing a multitude of other things when I’m online. My attention is much more focused when I have to look someone in the eye, sitting next to them.”
The proverb “better a neighbor close than a brother far away” (Proverbs 27.10) takes on new substance. Incarnation breeds a community and thus, accountability. My students will not rid themselves of their computers. They joined a city fellowship for two years knowing that tutoring a third grader to read or advocating for a single mom with a banker was an up close and personal commitment. In like manner, Piper agrees, “When we read we enter into a world of commonality, whether of language, story, or material object” (84).
But shared aims do not make sharing any easier. Piper’s chapter five on sharing suggests what we know: sharing is hard. Not only do we struggle with our own desire for control, our ability to communicate, leaves something to be desired. Once we release our ideas we do not know if another will treat them as we expect, leave them behind, or pawn them off as their own. Can we transfer what is common in a social context?
I may have learned all I needed to know in kindergarten (with thanks to Robert Fulghum) but knowing and doing are two different things. We have problems with our nature and our methods. Reading spaces (libraries) still need our discipline to get up and go. Coffeehouses find us with little to say to each other if our ears and eyes are connected to wires and screens. Social circle book clubs collect us together but isolate us apart—knowledge sharing is limited by our personal interpretation.
As I read Piper’s chapter, I found sharing his good ideas to be difficult without a community committed to the same ideals. A salesperson for Lilly made the point; she sat next to me on the plane as I wrote this essay. I asked her if sharing ideas was a process that should include buying and selling.
“In my industry,” she began, “Groups spin off from large corporations because they have a new idea. If too many people are involved with the specifics, the enterprise could be lost. People create new ideas so they can make money.”
In the world of reading and writing it is most often the suppliers of the content (think Google, Facebook, or YouTube) who make the money, not the content writers themselves (182). Sharing an idea, book, or movie experience is possible and good. We do indeed “give something away when we share it” (104).
I would surely agree, sacrifice leads to an acknowledgement of limits. But while Piper closes the chapter saying that books limit themselves, our nature is the true limitation. Our world likes efficiency. If nothing is produced by reading, why bother? Reading is diminished when the result is some value-laden payback.
A laid-back approach to books, literally lying on our back, should be our interest. If embodiment is important to reading so is the place we do it. Chapter six addresses the digital “core conviction, almost religious in tone, about the power of mobility” (112). Cell phones manage our reading on our feet instead of on our seat.
Piper suggests we read in a reading nook. Time and place are both important. We stop. We sit. We rest. We read. We create shelves for our books because books deserve a place. The very act of “browsing” depends on embodiment when we browse or glance at books (120-21). And herein is the problem.
“The urban reader no longer seeks out the nook for the sake of getting lost, taking a rest, or taking a leak. He or she is now persistently on a quest for meaning” (123).
Instead, Piper reminds the reader of the specialized reading chairs invented for the home, places where individuals could forget about their bodies as they read. As Edgar Allen Poe would write in his “Philosophy of Furniture,” describing his ideal domestic décor, “Repose speaks in all.”
The book and the material support to which it corresponded, was understood as a form of rest—it allowed readers to rest from the rigors of daily life; to rest on it in the sense of depending on something; and finally it was a form of rest in the sense of waste, or something leftover (as in what are you going to do with the rest of that?). The book was there so that we wouldn’t have to be. (116-17)
Over and over Piper suggests that readers need to get lost by finding a place.
Finding our place was a concept integral to deeply human Hebraic concerns. In chapter seven, Piper introduces us to eastern mindset ideals connecting numeracy and literacy (131). Hebrew writers were known for connecting words with numerical order and structure.
In the same way, Piper reminds the reader that repetition “is one of reading’s backbones” (145). Repetition creates meaning; the parts make the whole. From Piper’s point of view, repetition also broadens our scope beyond simply accepting or rejecting new media but to actively incorporate everything we read in books and on screens.
The significance of redundancy for human communication is to my mind one of the most persuasive reasons why the printed book should still matter to us today. But it is also a compelling argument for the importance of new forms of electronic reading. Expanding the number of channels through which our ideas circulate makes those ideas potentially richer (155).
Human life is redundancy. The same song is sung in multiple venues. The same play is performed on the same stage over consecutive days. A movie is seen by millions in multiple multiplexes. The same digital story passed through digital hands.
Piper’s exploration of history, art, anthropology, and sociology are anything but redundant. Ease and erudition mark Piper’s endless connections, heretofore unseen by most. Piper’s anchor is always his children and children’s books.
A warning—Piper is not dense but he is full. His is not some sampler. One must want to sit in the classroom of his pages to appreciate the presentation; Piper’s writing equates with dining at a fine French restaurant—we want to take our time. Literary taste buds will be awakened. Think of the small amount of food on a large plate in the French restaurant. As a book reviewer, I enjoyed the short sentences for they overwhelmed my palette, demanding I pause and enjoy.
My mom brings joy to children by the attention the book demands. Mom is a volunteer reader at her local library. As she begins to read, the children quiet themselves, their eyes get big, their bodies wrap into each other, their attention rapt to the story. Attention to the story is directed toward the book. Sitting on the reader’s lap is a normal mother occupation. For the father, Piper’s hope is that “work and play, will remain as interwoven throughout [my children’s] lives as the instruments that they use to engage in them, the book and the computer” (149).
The reader of Book Was There will feel as if they returned to childhood, book in hand, nestled next to the author’s spirit. Piper shares the belief that the incarnation of ideas on the printed page demand we honor the incarnation of the book in ourselves and with others.
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/