From Pacific Standard:
Reading always seems to be in crisis. Two and half millennia ago, Socrates inveighed against the written word because it undermined memory and confused data with wisdom. When the codex—the bound book—appeared, some conservative Romans almost certainly went around complaining: “What was wrong with scrolls? They were good enough for Horace and Cicero.” Gutenberg’s press gradually undercut the market for illuminated manuscripts. Aldus Manutius, inventor of the pocket-sized book, rendered huge folios a specialty item.
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By the late 19th and early 20th century, when public education made basic literacy available to everyone, the Western world couldn’t get enough printed matter. Andrew Carnegie financed the construction of hundreds of city libraries. Newsstands resembled caves of wonder, overflowing with magazines and serial fiction for every taste. This was the heyday of Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and the Scarlet Pimpernel, of The Secret Garden and The Thirty-Nine Steps, of The War of the Worlds and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Escapist reading had never been better.
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Of course, scolds regularly complained—then as now—that people were just drugging themselves with trash, that bad books were driving out good, that young people were being corrupted by pulp fiction when they should be devoting their days and nights to Plato and Shakespeare. Civilization was obviously being dumbed down, if not entirely destroyed. Consequently, educators and fast-talking salesmen were soon promulgating the virtues of spending 15 minutes a day with the Harvard Classics or, a little later, of investing large sums in the Great Books of the Western World.
Today, many people similarly bluster that digital books and our increasingly screen-based culture herald the end of serious reading. This is nonsense. There are consequences, and sometimes drawbacks, to all new technologies, but human beings can’t live without stories and poems.
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Through social media, the young woman of today who discovers Sylvia Plath can quickly share her excitement with friends around the world. She might leave a comment about Ariel or The Bell Jar on Goodreads, or join an online discussion group, or post links to sites devoted to the poet’s work and memory. Her enthusiasm might lead a dozen or a thousand more people to Plath.
That’s just one advantage of our screen-based culture. Older and half-forgotten titles are now readily available through Project Gutenberg and its ilk. Entire libraries can be carried in your pocket. Digitized texts can be easily and quickly searched, or their font size enlarged for aging eyes.
Nonetheless, countering these real benefits are various pitfalls. Computers encourage skimming instead of focused attention and solitary engagement with a book’s words and ideas. The buzzing Internet hive fosters meaningless chatter as well as meaningful dialog. Screens themselves impose a factitious homogeneity: James Bond looks like Jane Austen and a smartphone blurs the difference in size between the Giant Bible of Mainz and a tiny miniature book.
Above all, no digital facsimile can ever replicate the mana, the glamour of a physical artifact.
Link to the rest at Pacific Standard
For those who, like PG, aren’t familiar with mana, the word originates in Tonga and means a generalized supernatural force or power that can be concentrated in objects or people.
With all the snow PG has shoveled over the past several days, he’s pretty much into physical forces and powers at the moment. Looking around his office, he sees what Mrs. PG regards as entirely too many objects, but doesn’t sense mana emanating from any of them.