Reasonable Words: Books, their woes, dangers, and relevance

Keeping with my streak of bookish posts, an interesting piece from the Chronicle of Higher Ed (how long it will be outside the paywall, I knoweth not) musing on the book. Nice to have the historical context. From a prof at McGill who has written, of course, a book on the subject.

The manuscript scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, now on the London leg of its world tour!

Redundancy is thus not something that only belongs to “primitive” cultures; it is a basic condition of communicative reliability, of producing mutual understanding. Indeed, as the field of bioinformatics has more recently taught us, it is an elementary condition of life itself.The significance of redundancy for human communication is to my mind one of the most persuasive reasons why the printed book should still matter to us today. But it is also a compelling argument for the importance of new forms of electronic reading. Expanding the number of channels through which our ideas circulate makes those ideas potentially richer. That was the lesson of numerous medieval manuscript illustrations that highlighted the intersection of books, scrolls, and human speech to achieve a greater sense of understanding. More aspects of communication are not just quantitatively different. They are also qualitatively different. These multiple channels synthesize into something greater than the sum of their parts. The aggregation, and not the singularization, of communication is the condition of more complex thought. It is the condition of our humanity.


The story of the book’s dominance in the 19th century should stand as an important reminder to us today. As we are overrun by computation, much in the same way as we were once overrun by books, we need to remember that what makes us unique as a species is not just our ability to communicate in complex ways through words. It is our ability to layer—or more artisanally understood, to weave—different modes of communication with one another to give those same words a deeper, more profound meaning.

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