Living

Hurricane Of Digital Noise

I value highly the medium of the physical printed book in particular, and not only for its aesthetics. Having one more printed book in your home affects how you think. Passing over the reams of the psychology research about how the objects in your environment affect your mind, having a physical book in your home encourages your wife or your husband, your girlfriend or your boyfriend, your children, and your friends, to read it themselves, and to read more in general. A book that you and someone else have both read almost guarantees an impending good and memorable conversation.

Another benefit of printed books is that they help you to identify clearly the information that you truly value. The average person reads about 40 pages per hour. Let us assume that a typical book is about 300 pages. If you read for half an hour a day, covering 20 pages at a regular speed, you can finish a book in 15 days. The average American spends about two hours per day on social media, so replacing a quarter of that (or better still, all of it) with reading is certainly possible. Finishing a book in 15 days means two books per month, or 24 per year. If you kept up that reasonable pace, on average, for 50 years, by the end you would have read 1,200 books. In my experience that is enough to fill about 12 bookcases. The devoted knowledge-seeker could be proud of such a library. Now imagine that library: What books would you want in those bookcases? What is worth keeping in a physical copy? Frankenstein, obviously, but a city full of other books as well.

The question implies the corollary: Of what would it not be worthwhile to keep a physical copy? A few examples leap to mind: An acquaintance’s social media feed on a given day; a news article about an event that affects you negligibly or not at all; a viral video that was talked about by millions for a day and then completely forgotten, at no loss to the forgetters. You would not keep a printed edition of nearly any inch of the miles of digital “content” that you consume. If such material is not even worth keeping on your shelf, why would you bother putting it in your mind, which is far more valuable than even the finest bookshelf? Your time and attention should be jealously guarded and your mind should be reserved exclusively for the material that is worthy of it. Knowing what exactly meets this standard is difficult, but removing from the list of candidates anything that you would not bother keeping in print is a good start and will save you a lot of time and energy. Given the hurricane of digital noise in which the modern person exists if he does not move deliberately out of it, this signal-seeking quality of the printed book makes it as sacred and powerful as it has ever been.

Printed books are immune to retroactive censorship in a way that the Internet is not. If you want to go back and change what is written on Wikipedia or on a particular web page, all you need is control of that web page. To change what is written in a book that I own, you have to come to my house and get it out of my hands. Considering the technology of the book generally, it becomes clear that indeed, sometimes less is more. One of the chief advantages of a book is what it does not do. You cannot check your email or browse social media on a printed book. You cannot read the news or play a game. A book has exactly one feature: It gives you direct and unencumbered access to some of the greatest minds who have ever lived, and all of the riches that come along with that access. Among those riches is how a book, like a thrown fishing line stretching out over a lake, extends the attention span, which the Internet and other modern technologies have shattered in most people.

The printed book is also largely secure against widespread technological collapse. It is unlikely that a geomagnetic storm like the Carrington Event of 1859 will knock out all electrical power, or that some other unforeseen cataclysm will obstruct the Internet or technology generally in the long term. The trouble is that history is not at all linear, and unlikely events happen all the time. Our normalcy bias impairs our ability to imagine that history and technological development will advance in any manner other than linearly. It is statistically safe to think that such an event will not happen in your lifetime; all the same I enjoy the security of knowing that a printed book would carry on and continue to enrich the lives of future generations even if the lights were to suddenly go out. If a nuclear war destroyed every major city on earth – which today seems as likely as it has been at any point during my life – the survivors could rebuild civilization starting from the libraries upward. In this way, physical libraries are a kind of civilizational backstop, or insurance policy. 

All this is not to say that I only use printed books. I understand the value of ebooks and audiobooks and I enjoy both. I may even publish some of those someday. I say this only to emphasize the entirely practical benefits of the printed book format. The ebook is more portable and the audiobook can be enjoyed without exerting the eyes. However, the printed book remains the more durable and reliable option. By the measures I have described – as a sanctuary from distraction, as an intellectual accelerant in the home, as a signal-seeking standard for worthwhile knowledge, and for its immunity to censorship and technological collapse – the printed book stands supreme and alone.

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