One of my older relatives has an Amazon Kindle. He also has an iPad. When I asked him why on earth he would need two of these gadgets—one, an e-book reader; the other a “tablet,” a term that recalls my fourth-grade Egyptology curriculum—he explained to me how much lighter the iPad was to carry around than his laptop. And when he went on an airplane with his wife, he would of course need to share with her the joy of reading on a screen. At this point, I think he has a BlackBerry, a regular cell phone (what some now label a “dumb” phone), and an iPhone, but I’ve lost track. And me? iConfused.
People often accuse members of my generation of being too tuned into, plugged into, and tapped into our new gadgets. We’ve lost all literary and intellectual interests, the baby boomers tell me. Nonsense! It is the older generations who are obsessed with these antisocial e-readers. They like the screens that magnify text to accommodate their farsighted eyes. They like zooming in and out, swapping the Times and the Post for the Journal and the New Yorker. Maybe they’re learning how to cook from a Nook, rekindling a passion for reading on a Kindle. I wouldn’t know; I’ve never tried either.
Call me old-fashioned. Some of my fellow undergraduates do use e-readers for their class work. They read PDFs written by Ph.D.s. They browse the Internet before they browse the Widener stacks. But I can’t wrap my head around the idea of taking notes on something I can’t wrap my hand around. I like being able to feel and write on what I read, and maybe even hole-punch it and stick it in a binder.
There is an expectation that undergraduates love to read online. As a result, students now read in a way that departs significantly from the practice of generations past. The day of the course pack appears to be coming to an end. This semester, only one of my courses had a booklet for its supplementary readings. I found myself printing out sheets upon sheets of double-sided, multiple-paged articles at the printers in Lamont Library, but this became simply too time-intensive. Course iSites are the new course packs, and they are also the bane of my existence. With the Internet, instructors go on an uploading frenzy, so downloading becomes students’ downfall. It is on course websites where, in many courses, the vast majority of reading—sometimes even entire books—is uploaded for homework, or where I write “posts” on course “blogs,” even though I don’t have a blog of my own.
I am not, however, a Luddite. I am pro-flow of information and think the Harvard Library’s efforts to digitize its collections for the public are revolutionary. I consume most of my news online, and I use the E-Resources page on the Harvard Library website as much as the next social studies concentrator. And I proudly acknowledge that, even if we aren’t the target market for e-readers or the brains behind course websites, my generation is the pulse behind social media. Social media is a wonderful tool: It enables us to reconnect with old friends. It has catalyzed revolutions in the Middle East. And it has served as the inspiration for my favorite film of the year, The Social Network. Still, despite what I recognize to be the groundbreaking capability of technology, I cannot come round to the idea of reading online in an academic setting—at least, not yet. I fear that the more we transition from physical books to websites, the more we will lose the rich paper trail of the liberal arts.
My first spring at Harvard, I took a freshman seminar with Pforzheimer University Professor Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard Library. The seminar, called “The Book: From Gutenberg to the Internet,” offered a few of us first-years an introduction to the history of the book as a physical object and to Harvard’s wonderful library collections. We made our own pamphlets on a printing press using movable type; we leafed through one of Harvard’s two copies of the Gutenberg Bible in Houghton; we toured the Weissman Preservation Center; we looked at John Updike’s marginalia on Shakespeare’s sonnets; we observed Harvard’s new digitization practices in the depths of Widener. The course offered us a wonderful opportunity to witness the past, present, and future of the book as we know it.
With the digitization efforts pioneered at places like Harvard, we are entering an era in which sharing literature and research is easier than ever. That’s a good thing. But I hope that along the way we don’t forget the good old regular book. I hope professors continue to assign paperbacks and hardcovers, and that they publish course packs, too. Sure, there is nothing like being able to access any book you need wherever there’s a Wi-Fi connection, and because there’s a Starbucks on just about every corner, getting online is usually pretty easy. But there is also nothing quite like browsing the stacks of your favorite bookstore, marking up the margins of a book, and passing it along to a friend. As I learned in my freshman seminar, in doing so you’re creating history: you may just become the next John Updike, and Harvard freshmen of the future will drop their jaws at the opportunity to see your margin notes.