Thursday, March 01, 2012

World Book Day

It seems fitting on World Book Day to say a little more about why e-readers can never take the place of the printed book.

But first, here is a quotation from the compelling and hallucinogenic From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón, translated by the wonderfully named Victoria Cribb (London: Telegram 2011), which I came across a day or two after last week’s post ‘The Living Book’.

p. 58 ‘… I felt the heat of the animosity [p. 59] they bear toward me, the vindictive nature that drives a man to destroy his neighbour in a fire as if he were a banned book … For what is the difference? Every book is imbued with the human spirit …

'My eyes are smarting … In the conflagration I hear the breath of the man who composed the text, and the breath of the man who formed the words, one after the other, and the breath of the man who reads it … I hear this trinity breathing as one and the same being, steadily in and out, until the fire consumes the breath from their lungs, disbanding the fellowship of those whom the book nurtured, like the soil that brings forth different plants … And many were the intertwined souls that burnt at Helgafell when the old monastery library was cast on the [p. 60] bonfire, along with the few holy relics and statues that had not already been destroyed … Alas, I was there! … What could my puny strength achieve when set against the giant pyre that raged like three volcanic craters, so great was the heat from that diabolical act? …

'And who should have been the Royal Incendiary of the first pyre, the Master Incendiary of the second pyre, the Grim Incendiary of the third? He whose duty it was to take the lead in the spiritual education of the flock in that parish, Reverend Sigurdur Pétursson, a young man who had recently taken up the living there… That day the Reverend Sigurdur awoke before anyone else, already raving. He ran in his nightshirt to the library, locked himself in and began hurling the books higgledy-piggledy on the floor … The servants watched aghast through the windows as he tore off his shift, flung himself on his back and rolled around on the books like a flea-bitten stray in the farmyard … Howling, he seized the writings at random ….

[…and after committing acts too lewd for this family blog] '… he ordered his sexton to clear out the library, pile the heretical collection in a heap in the field ,and build three bonfires with the books, which he then set alight himself…… Providence guided me to Helgafell that day … I [p. 62] was meant to witness the tragedy… I covered the whole distance on foot, arriving to find the fire at its height and, falling on my knees before it, I wept …’

On a more positive note, here are some other aspects of printed books that e-readers can never match.

First, I have yet to see a book I wanted to read available in e-reader format.

Second, the e-reader is tied to electricity, which is problematic on several fronts. The folly of having based all of our modern ‘culture’ on something as fragile and fuel-dependent as electricity is summed up by the e-reader. While we certainly need to digitize as many books and manuscripts as possible, we cannot count on preserving our cultural heritage through electronic media alone.

Third, e-readers are extremely hard on the eyes.

Fourth, when the footnotes are at the end of the book, the process of reading, of repeatedly having to scroll the length of the book, becomes extremely frustrating.

Beyond these technical points, bound books provide invaluable services for scholars which electronic books can never supply.

Human beings have a strange and as yet unexplained relationship with the physical book. Perhaps it is similar to the phenomenon (what Rupert Sheldrake used to call ‘morphic resonance’) of knowing that you are being watched, or thinking about someone just before they ring or text or send an email; of having a premonition of what is in the email even before you open it, although you have no rational reason for apprehension.

Sitting in a room lined with books is sitting in a room full of friends with whom you can converse, argue, commune. Their mere presence keeps memory and thought alive.

Bound books also allow you to browse along open shelves in a library, to be exposed to books you would never have thought existed, much less thought to read. Such an encounter makes you begin to realise how small your world is — while e-readers do the opposite: they tend to lock you into a solipsistic world, repeating the same themes over and over, in the same way that Amazon suggests you buy books similar to what you have bought in the past, but never offering something tangentially related in a totally different field. Digital technology is foreign to lateral thinking and tends to lock us in on our selves.

I would never have found The Paradox of Intention which was absolutely key to the development of my work if someone hadn't left a copy on a deck chair on the smallest Alaska ferry going to the end of the world; if it had been on an e-reader, I never would have discovered it.

Bound books engage all the senses, both literally and metaphorically: touch, sight, smell, hearing, taste: each book or manuscript has its own feel, its unique physical appearance, its smell—sometimes when you smell an old manuscript you are transported. And smell is tied to taste: ‘O taste and see …’ says the Psalmist. Ezekiel, Jeremiah and John all knew the bitter and sweet taste of the Word.

As may we.

Long live the printed book!


Blogger Ian said...

Hi Maggie,

Terrific post as always.

I love printed books but I am less sanguine about their future. I know the end is near when I hear publishers and literary agents refer to books as "content." This demeaning shift in language reminds me of the objectification of the other which always takes place right before an ethnic cleansing.

On that happy note I have a few questions I hope you don't mind answering. I read Max Picard's The World of Silence last year and it launched me on an extraordinary journey. I'm wondering when your book on silence will be released and if you would share the 2-3 works you believe all newcomers to the way of silence must read if they are to get the proper foundation. Please feel free to offer names of any books you believe are seminal to someone moving further into the contemplative stream (forgive me if the word contemplative has been rendered meaningless. Please offer a more helpful alternative if you wish.)

Finally, what are your thoughts on Rufus Jones?



1:36 pm, March 01, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Ian,

Thanks for your interesting comments. I fear you are correct about the ethnic cleansing of books, but I am going to fight it to the death!

As to your questions, I have always had very mixed feelings about Picard's book, because ultimately it is a defense of language and falls on the side of self-consciousness. There is an interesting review at

As to books to help lay a 'proper foundation' — this is a bit more difficult because it seems to me presumptuous to say that there is any such thing as a 'proper foundation'. I think that in his heart of hearts Gerson would agree, as would Simone Weil and others — including Jesus!

Silence doesn't depend on what you read but how you listen. One of Picard's mistakes, it seems to me, although at one level this context does silence a service in the sense of giving it a certain legitimacy, is to think of silence as 'philosophy' in the modern sense. What he did, writing at the peak of positivism, was very brave, but in the end I think he was afraid of silence in the same way that the Church was increasingly so before the Reformation.

By contrast, here is the contemporary philosopher Karmen McKendrick:

'We still must use words; we still must draw out the questions that lie within philosophy. It is only that we have learned that we must use philosophy against itself, wrap our words around spaces without words, and leave them wordless, as if they could thus be kept, though we know that we lose them together with ourselves.'

I think people come to a deep silence if given the opportunity: on the occasions that I give talks to mixed audiences, it is always the least educated who have the most profound understanding. From where I sit (and from my own experience) it is necessary to find the silence first and then, maybe, read about it, although there is really very little to read, in part because almost everything that is written and most of the texts that are translated have a Cartesian bias.

One of the major problems is that a lot of texts that speak of the move from self-consciousness to deep mind the balanced circulation between the two (with the primacy of deep mind) are labeled 'dualist' because the interpreter is using a methodology that allows for only one epistemology. This is as true of classical texts as it is for many of the so-called gnostic texts. We need to go back and review ALL the texts that are influential in Western Christianity with an eye to the two epistemologies model. What a lot of surprises people will have!

I think if you are listening properly the book you need (or the encounter) will fall into your hand. It may be a novel, it may be a book on science, it may be a piece of art, it may be an encounter with a person or a landscape—there is no 'correct' way in. Silence itself is the teacher, and the fewer categories and stereotypes we acquire in this regard the better off we will be.

As regards silence, I see books as serving more of a 'yes, I know what that means' (or its opposite) function, a dialogical function, the reader perhaps understanding far more than the writer. Sorry to be so ambiguous, but I do feel that there are as many paths as people.

As to Rufus Jones, I don't know anything about him.

As to my own book, I'm hoping to finish a draft by the end of the year. It's going to be a far bigger book than I had wanted. My writing has been set back by the discovery of Margaret Barker, but while I disagree with some of what she writes, I think she is basically correct and that Christianity will never be the same in the wake of her writing—it will be much better.

With every good wish, and my thanks,


3:12 pm, March 01, 2012  
Blogger Ian said...

Hi Maggie,

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Your kindness and thoughtful remarks are appreciated.


4:53 pm, March 01, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Rufus Jones looks very interesting, Ian. Thanks for the suggestion. I'll check him out.

9:34 pm, March 01, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

re: comments above re: silence and contemplation
i found the analogies in the excerpt below to be both humorous and thought-provoking:

...if there is a form of psychological well-being that isn’t contingent upon merely repeating one’s pleasures, then this happiness should be available even when all the obvious sources of pleasure and satisfaction have been removed. If it exists at all, this happiness should be available to a person who has renounced all her material possessions, and declined to marry her high school sweetheart, and gone off to a cave or to some other spot that would seem profoundly uncongenial to the satisfaction of ordinary desires and aspirations.

One clue as to how daunting most people would find such a project is the fact that solitary confinement—which is essentially what we are talking about—is considered a punishment even inside a prison. Even when cooped up with homicidal maniacs and rapists, most people still prefer the company of others to spending any significant amount of time alone in a box.

And yet, for thousands of years, contemplatives have claimed to find extraordinary depths of psychological well-being while spending vast stretches of time in total isolation.


... what contemplatives and mystics over the millennia claim to have discovered is that there is an alternative to merely living at the mercy of the next neurotic thought that comes careening into consciousness. There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.

Most us think that if a person is walking down the street talking to himself—that is, not able to censor himself in front of other people—he’s probably mentally ill. But if we talk to ourselves all day long silently—thinking, thinking, thinking, rehearsing prior conversations, thinking about what we said, what we didn’t say, what we should have said, jabbering on to ourselves about what we hope is going to happen, what just happened, what almost happened, what should have happened, what may yet happen—but we just know enough to just keep this conversation private, this is perfectly normal. This is perfectly compatible with sanity. Well, this is not what the experience of millions of contemplatives suggests.


the excerpts are from the second half of the article linked below. before clicking the link, try to guess what sort of person the speaker is.
Guess Who

and another article about the same person here

re: blog entry re: not books, but libraries

Librophiliac Love Letter: A Compendium of Beautiful Libraries
due to some sort of bug, i can't link directly to the article, but i can link to a search which includes the full article plus 2 other articles. so scroll past the first 2 articles to view pics of a number of incredibly beautiful libraries.


7:36 am, March 02, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

because of the bug linking directly to the other pics of libraries, i forgot to include a second link of a different assortment of beautiful library pics. arghh.
Temples of Knowledge: Historical Libraries of the Western World


7:41 am, March 02, 2012  
Blogger Sarah Smiles said...

Maggie, I have been away from your site for quite awhile and what a mistake on my behalf. This is a wonderful post and speaks to my whole being. Although I use technology and indeed find ti most useful I never read a book electronically. When I write I like to use pen and paper, often entering it in the computer later. My favorite place in my house is my library, there amidst my friends my explorations begin. As you say, the touch, the smell the taste and visual experience is the most satisfying. Thank you for your reflection.

5:18 pm, March 04, 2012  

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