Where's the Bailout for Publishing?

Books are essential to American life, and if publishing perishes, Stephen L. Carter argues, democracy itself will soon follow.

03.17.09 11:47 PM ET

Like a lot of writers, I am wondering when Congress and the administration will propose a bailout for the publishing industry. Carnage is everywhere. Advances slashed, editors fired, publicity at subsistence levels, entire imprints vanished into thin air. Moreover, unlike some of the industries that the government, in its wisdom, has decided to subsidize, the publishing of books is crucial to the American way of life.


Books are essential to democracy. Not literacy, although literacy is important. Not reading, although reading is wonderful. But books themselves, the actual physical volumes on the shelves of libraries and stores and homes, send a message through their very existence. In a world in which most things seem ephemeral, books imply permanence: that there exist ideas and thoughts of sufficient weight that they are worth preserving in a physical form that is expensive to produce and takes up space. And a book, once out there, cannot be recalled. The author who changes his mind cannot just take down the page.

One did not only read God’s word; one touched it. Many of us are old enough to remember when families routinely kissed the Bible. It is difficult to imagine lavishing the same loving attention on the computer screen.

A couple of years ago, an enthusiast of the digital revolution wrote in the Times that Google’s project to digitize all printed books will lead us to “the creation of virtual ‘bookshelves’ – a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information.” No doubt this is so. But the reduction of books and their contents to mere “information” helps illustrate the risk of the method.

In a library, you can stand beside the shelf and run your finger along the spines. You can feel the book-ness of what has been written. It is a very unsophisticated reader indeed who conceptualizes the library principally as a place to obtain information. A library is a shrine to the book. When we eliminate the name “library,” as some universities and communities have done, creating such vulgarities as “information resource centers,” we are, implicitly, denigrating the very object that the library is intended to preserve. The book, we are saying, is not important; only its information content matters.

This is an error. With its weight and solidity, a book signals to the world that there are ideas worth preserving in a form that carries heft, and takes up space; by its touchability, a book signals the importance of our engagement in an arena external to and larger than ourselves; and by sitting on a shelf, along which we can run both hands and eyes, a book signals the possibility of still being surprised by what we discover. When I stand in an antiquarian bookshop, touching a first edition of Thackeray or Eliot, I am not simply absorbing information; I am connecting myself to generations past, touching the object that will persevere, in nearly the same form, for generations to come.

I am no enemy of the online world—I spend plenty of time there, and am writing for it at this moment—but the notion that we will experience texts the same way once they migrate to cyberspace is a fantasy. As the literary critic J. Hillis Miller has noted, an online text has a “fragile, fleeing, and insubstantial existence” compared to a book. A book is forever. A screen of text is not.

The notion that ideas are ephemeral and ever-changing presents a problem. Democracy is at its best when citizens debate among themselves, working out their differences through a process of reasoned argument and compromise. Democracy, in this sense, requires a mutual respect, across political differences. It requires us to grant, if only for the sake of our shared national life, that those who disagree have spent as much time in reflecting on their positions as we have.

A book matches perfectly the ideal of reflection.The tougher the text, the more reflective we must be in absorbing it. This suggests the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing—and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share. And if we are willing to work our way through difficult texts, we are far more likely to be willing to work our way through our opponents’ difficult ideas. An important lesson of serious reading is that ideas need not be correct to be important.

The online text, by contrast, proposes to the reader that ideas are little more than the stuff that dreams are made on. As Miller notes, if you dislike any aspect of the text—the font style or size, say, or the columnar arrangement—you are free to alter it to your liking. The text loses its fixed-ness. It ceases to represent anything permanent or unchanging.

Democracy is not alone in its need for the book. It is no accident that the great Western religions rely heavily on sacred texts—texts, moreover, that believers are able to touch and feel and carry about. The weight and heft of a Bible, its solidity, itself implies eternity. Matthew Brown of the University of Iowa, in his pathbreaking study of early American devotional texts, has pointed out how their form— “short and tubby, as thick as a brick” —formed a part of the aesthetic experience of the reader. One did not only read God’s word; one touched it. Many of us are old enough to remember when families routinely kissed the Bible. It is difficult to imagine lavishing the same loving attention on the computer screen.

And what has science to say about all this? We do not know as much as perhaps we one day will about the differences in how the brain perceives texts, depending on whether the text is presented as page or as screen. Most of the perception research so far has focused on retention rates, and is aimed at improving the presentation of the material on the screen. In other words, the research presupposes the migration of text to the screen, and asks how to improve it. But note the narrow focus of the improvement: Text is conceptualized as a tool for the transmission of data, nothing more. Reading is not an activity or an experience but simply a tool. Reading is indeed a tool; but it is also more. When we consider only retention, the “more” is lost.

Still, we do have some ideas. Several very preliminary studies, largely with fiction, suggest that readers who look at texts online have trouble retaining as much as those who view the text on a page. Some critics insist that these results are artifactual, that when we have two or three generations raised on the screen rather than the page, we will find the opposite result.

If this is so, we should look at experiments with the young. A small study published a few years ago in the Journal of Educational Psychology suggested that children may gain information equally fast with either method, but are less able to interact with text presented on a screen. This research, if it holds up, might just signal a general decline in interaction, unrelated to the nature of text. It might also signal, however, a greater distance from the text viewed on the screen – in other words, a smaller likelihood that the reader will lose himself or herself in the act of reading. (Bad news for those of us who write novels.)

Such results might bear out Miller’s concern that, in cyberspace, the text “jostles side by side” with a thousand other possible destinations for the attention. And the reader, of course, freely flees. I have had the experience of reading an op-ed in a newspaper, then mentioning it later to a friend, who will say, “Yes, I read it” —but will have turned out to have skimmed the first page of text or so, before jumping away to something else. Perhaps, when we read online, the perceptive part of the brain is, in a sense, confused by the intention of the reader who sits in front of a screen. Is the reader there to gather and reflect upon information, or perhaps to check email or play a game?

Or perhaps, as others have suggested, the fact that one touches a book, physically turning the pages, and, generally, turning the head as well, means that the memory echoes in different parts of the brain, thus making recall easier. Plenty of science supports the proposition that, in infants, the act of touching helps develop cognitive skills. In one famous experiment, the ability of babies to tell where a sound was coming from was heightened when they were allowed to feel the device or toy making the sound. Many of us remember cramming for exams back in college, and, when sitting for the test, recalling that the answer we needed was at the bottom of a particular page of the book; and summoning that image, in turn, helped us to form a complete memory.

Whatever we finally learn from the science, we can be certain of one thing: A screen is not the same as a page, and, as the migration continues, the experience of reading will itself be altered. We can anticipate a decline in reflection, in the willingness to work hard to understand a point of view, and, perhaps, the loss of the ability to appreciate the value of ideas.

Of course, we have been here before—somebody has, anyway. Two thousand years ago, the written word was transmitted almost entirely on scrolls, and the nature of the scroll helped dictate the nature of what was written. Thus, texts tended to be long and linear, designed to be read as the scroll was unrolled. Jumping back and forth within a text was an enormous challenge, and there is reason to think few rose to it. Only with the development of the codex, the ancestor of what we think of as the book, did the reader begin to gain control over the material read. For the first time, the reader could hunt around within the text, moving forward or back, even skipping chunks of text by merely flipping pages. The codex worked a revolution in human communication, and the human understanding of the text was never the same.

Indeed, we might say that democracy in its modern form emerged from the idea of written-ness. Absent the codex, ideas would still be the province of a privileged priesthood. The Internet, by hypothesis, will spread ideas to everyone. But if the form of presentation no longer signals permanence and eternity, if we are no longer encouraged to work our way through difficult texts, then we will likely see the decline of democracy and the rise of something else.

Will the something else be better or worse? Sounds like a good idea for a book.

Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, where he has taught since 1982. His seven nonfiction books include God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics and Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy . His first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002), spent eleven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. His fourth novel, Jericho’s Fall, will be published in July.