How Books Learn

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Some years ago Stewart Brand, of The Whole Earth Catalog fame, wrote a fascinating book called How Buildings Learn, which was later made into a BBC series that, wonderfully enough, can now be seen on YouTube. My question is: If buildings can learn, why not books? And why not think of the rise of electronic publishing and reading as a stage in the education of books?

How Buildings Learn is a kind of predecessor to, or maybe a founding document of, the movement that has recently come to be called object-oriented ontology, or OOO. The key question of OOO is summed up in the subtitle of Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology: What It's Like to Be a Thing. Stewart Brand was asking: What's it like to be a building? You get built for certain people but then get used, as a working space or living space, for other people. You have certain functions early in your life and very different ones later on: maybe you're a warehouse converted into lofts, or an elegant family home remade into a dentist's office. Brand says that very few buildings adapt well because they're not built to adapt; but adaptation happens anyway, because people come and go and human needs change. It must be strange to be a building.

Books are very different objects than buildings, because they embody human purposes in very different ways. We see the hand of the architect in a building, and discern her mind, but books seem, to many of us anyway, to have a more intimate relation to human consciousness. We are usually more sensitive to authors' intentions than to those of architects. (Whether that should be the case is another story.) All that said, books had to learn too and always have. Homer's epics had to learn Roman ways: Virgil taught them. Sophocles' Antigone had to realize, during World War II, that it was fundamentally about the French Resistance. The novels of Jane Austen, written as popular entertainment, have been shoehorned into academic contexts, and have been recalcitrant and slow learners, always insisting on being sources of delight. And don't get me started on the Bible and Shakespeare.

Viewed in this context, electronic reading is simply another stage in the education of books, and maybe not one of the more eventful ones. Of course, that will depend on what we mean by "book." 

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There's the book as a physical object, which might share a grave with a saint for a few centuries, only to end up in a museum, or live a boring and uneventful life, perhaps not even read, until transformed into a work of art

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But as the previous paragraph shows, I mean "book" in different sense, a sense not attached to a unique objectification, in the way that many people can say that they have read Middlemarch even when the various objects answering to that name resemble one another only generally.

Consider, in this light, the Iliad. It began life as a song, a very long song composed and then chanted by a Greek bard. It came to life through the ears of audiences gathered in firelit courtyards or the plazas of Ionic towns. Surely the transition to written form -- some scribe trying to scribble fast enough on his sheets of papyrus to keep up with the bard's chant, being forced repeatedly to stop the poor man, drag him out of his half-conscious trance, to make sure of a word or a line -- was a traumatic one for the poem. Indeed, would any future event be as traumatic? The absorption into Roman culture, the strange reinterpretations that then emerged, were jarring in their own way, but surely not as dramatic as that first translation to the page.

After that, the long slow process of becoming a classic couldn't have been so stressful to the Iliad: though it surely felt odd to be told that it was a Christian allegory, it had been prepared for that when it was co-opted by the Pax Romana idea. The development of print was memorable, but the disorientation stemming from that event brought more pleasure than fear: to be so widely copied and distributed was thrilling, and the poem had never looked so beautiful as in the editions made by Aldus Manutius. So many people treasured it now, which helped compensate for all the curses it received from schoolboys who got caned for failing to distinguish the second declension from the third. But the poem never really adjusted to other languages: Latin, French, English -- none of them sounded right, ever, though in certain moments . . . There was a man called Pope, for instance. . . .

In light of this long, long history, during which the poem has had to learn so much, adapt to so many circumstances, how could it be intimidated by the rise of electronic reading? "Why should I concern myself with bits and pixels? I remember the harried scribe with his papyrus sheets. I was once a song."

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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