Many talk about the demise of the newspaper (and perhaps also the book) as digital media become more widespread and people get “The News” from the Internet.
We need to look closely at what’s happening, especially now with the advent of the iPad, at what we may be losing, but also and probably more important, at what we are, I think, clearly gaining.
I would say first of all that the issue lies not with the intrinsic value of “News,” the subject matter of the best of our publications, or the great importance of the bringers of the “News.” The place of the news, its importance in our lives is, largely thanks to the internet and the new electronic media, greater now than ever before.
The issue that we are concerned with is much less than that. Newsprint, book paper, the printing presses, those are the “lives” that are facing their end, just as were ended, some time after Homer, the oral bringers of the news.
For 3000 years or more writing on papyrus, parchment, and much more recently paper became more effective and more efficient than oral transmissions in bringing the “news” to the people. Would we even have had an Odyssey, that is, an oral account of Odysseus’s journey, if our own “media” had been present at the time of that journey?
So, yes, of course the advent of electronic media does represent a loss, as does every change, from that of the clipper ship to the steamboat, the horse and carriage to the automobile, and all the myriad other instances when what seemed to be a vital part of our lives was abandoned by the side of the road as we moved on and into a widely different future time.
Now we are faced with the loss of the paper book, the newspaper, and the magazine. But is there any doubt that the digital transmission of words is more effective, more complete, certainly much less costly, much less a drain on our natural resources and hence more environmentally friendly?
Again, it’s important not to forget that the “News” is not threatened, only the means of transmission. If that is fully understood we will stop bemoaning the loss of the newspaper, and the book, and fully partake of the much greater news opportunities of the digital world.
The strange thing is that now, when there are so many who daily experience the internet, there are almost as many who don’t understand that their new habit doesn’t mean the loss of anything vital, but that it’s only a correction, a change in vehicle, with actually much better news coverage than ever before.
How would one defend the loss of what we call “hard copy?” Book lovers say, —”Oh don’t take my book… I have it by my bed at night, in my pocket when I go to the beach, with me when I travel. Furthermore, I can’t imagine my life without my own library of books. For books, probably no less than my wife and children and now grandchildren, have been and still are such a huge part of my daily life.”
I understand this. The books I own, probably only a few thousand remaining of the 10s of thousands I have owned in my lifetime, comfort me and call me back to all, or nearly all the important moments of my past life.
The French writers, André Gide and Albert Camus, whom I read while in Medical School (and ended up dropping out as a result). Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man and others of his works recalling my time in graduate school at Columbia in the 60s. The bilingual, French and Classical Greek editions of the Greek and Roman classics that I read while teaching at St. John’s College in the late 60s.
Alston Hurd Chase’s A New Introduction to Greek, the text I used in my teaching of that language while at St. Johns. Pirandello’s complete works, especially the hundreds of his short stories, one for every day of the year, that I read and reread as I wrote my PhD dissertation (never finished) while living in Florence, via Michelangelo, …
And it goes on and on, right up until the present. In the 90s I stocked my shelves with Russian books while I taught myself to read that language following six months in the Soviet Union, and most recently I’ve been purchasing from Amazon’s used book network political science books, books about evolution, cosmology, the history of the earth, also calculus texts, the study of which had been cut short while being taken up with the running of a school I started with my wife in the 70s…
Anyway, am I implying that books, such as the ones that have accompanied me throughout my life, should somehow live forever? And to make sure that they do we ought to keep the printing presses rolling?
Well yes, and no. No because paper texts are probably not the best means of assuring the survival of men’s knowledge and discoveries. Paper texts can be lost, as was the case during the fire in Alexandria in the first century before the present era, and during the Inquisition and the Nazi periods in Germany and Southern Europe when books were first banned and then burned. That which still happens I’m sure.
In fact, books are easily destroyed and we should have better ways of preserving the best of what men have thought and written.
And as we think about these sorts of things we need to distinguish between books, what is it that they contain and that we need and want to preserve, and the news, what we no less want to preserve, the papers, journals, and magazines that contain the accounts of what the few have witnessed and/or experienced and written down for the benefit and enjoyment of the many.
In fact, of the two I would say that the “News” is the most important. It is the news that precedes the book, the news of the experience or the thought that one has had. The news that Odysseus left Troy and successfully made it home to Ithaca where Penelope was waiting. The book is just one person’s account of that trip. Present day media facilities would have given us myriad accounts.
In the news we learn that drone fired missiles are destroying segments of the Al Qaeda leadership in North Waziristan…. The book that often follows the news accounts is someone’s interpretation of what happened, perhaps a much fuller treatment of what it means, say, for the U.S. to fire missiles into the wild border regions of Pakistan. But the News came first.
In my opinion we should concern ourselves less with the writing of the book, because books will be written with or without our support. The news is at greater risk. We need to be sure that the News can reach us, and for that to happen someone has to be there and has to have whatever it takes to write it down and then transmit it…
We need to be mightily concerned that this sort of thing never stops. I would even argue that the news coming into our homes, now in electronic format, ought to be considered no less vital to our well being than the electrical, gas, water, sewer and other supply lines.
This is already happening with broadband hookups. Children are now growing up, attached as much or more to the internet supply line to their homes as to the water running from the tap, or to their parents returning into the house from the store with the groceries.
What if the News were to be treated like a utility, like heat, water, and electricity? Is it no less essential to our well-being, our completeness? In fact, is there anyone who gets by on heat, water, and electricity alone?
Actually we pay now for news coming into our household via cable or satellite. Why wouldn’t payments of this nature be enough for the creators of the all important News? Why do we also need advertisers? The latter do not accompany the arrival in our homes of the other “utilities.”
Well, after having said all this, I guess I do think that there is still a place for hard copies. For books and journals etc., the kind of thing you put in your pocket and take to the beach, and the kind of thing I have so many of in my library at home.
But electronic publications don’t need to threaten the book. Both can exist. We still need to find out how they might best coexist. Perhaps books are to computer screens as candles to electric lights? Is anyone without candles in their home? An interesting, but probably not a valid analogy.
I know the e-readers. I have a Kindle, and I also have access at no cost to many of the classics through the Project Gutenberg. But it would never occur to me to keep, say, Melville’s Moby Dick, Chekhov’s and Pirandello’s short stories, only in digital format, and this in spite of their being readily available for download to my computer. I still need to have them in book form.
Even though in the long run my books will be dead the way I’ll be dead (although as I look over my library shelves it is clear that their life spans will outdo my own), returned as dust to the earth…. while, although the jury is still out, the electronic form of the book may be as close as anything in our possession to being immortal.
During my life time books on paper will have fulfilled an essential role, perhaps one that electronic books, even the digital versions of the books of my library, will never fulfill. Perhaps because of this, to some extent anyway, the printing presses will continue to roll as does the horse and carriage (although not the steamboat). I guess this is what the “issue” I mention above is all about….