A recent Facebook post written by Dr. John Chan, a junior colleague, got me thinking about how technology impacts our learning and even our church life. The post basically says that the decrying of electronic books is an antiquated way of thinking, and that it represents other antiquated ways of thinking. I wish to challenge all parts of his general statements. I will only speak on what I know from teaching preachers how to communicate on the pulpit and on New Testament studies. I’ll leave the rest of the argument with others with greater expertise in other areas of communications. Anyone wanting my further opinion on communications in modern media age can consult my second Chinese monograph on preaching, published by Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, a textbook I use for my preaching classes.
The argument about media isn’t that new, believe it or not. If anyone thinks that it’s really about being progressive versus antiquated, he needs to read Plato dating some 2500 years before our conversation. Yes, 2500 years ago! Plato knew stuff. In Phaedrus, he talked about the changing media and how writing could impact the reception of originally oral presentations. I’ve blogged about it elsewhere. I won’t rehash it here. I just wish to deal directly with Chan’s post.
The post written by Chan says that people want to read printed books instead of reading e-books is due to habit, and he feel bothered by such a traditional way of thinking. Sure, IF habit is only the reason they decry e-books, then I’d be bothered too. I’ve never been accused of being a traditionalist in my entire academic career. If anything, people often accuse me of being too progressive. The issue is very much more complicated than traditional versus progressive. He writes that if someone loves to read, he would read using any medium, including using e-books or the computer screen. I can’t disagree, but is that the only argument in favor of e-books, the love for reading? I don’t think so. This is where his baseless opinion begins to fall apart. What he fails to realize is that the medium of each person who loves to read impacts the way the text is received.
Here’re some complicated issues to ponder. A few decades ago, Marshall McLuhan proclaims, “The medium is the message.” McLuhan may be more than half right. If the message is only information like Chan suggests, yes, it’s very simple to read the data the way one reads a dictionary, but it isn’t that simple. Reading for data is the lowest level of reading that is mostly primary (or elementary) school stuff. Reading is mostly not for data. Reading is for interpretation, and when you interpret, you need context. . Text isn’t just data, as McLuhan notes. Instead, the interpreter receives text, and here’s where Chan’s worldview runs into trouble.
All over Asia, Australia, and many parts of N. America, I’ve tested the effects of reading e-books in my explanation of the importance of a printed Bible for our primary reading tool in listening to sermons and in personal reading. I think I’ve conducted a wide enough samples of experiment with both the Chinese-speaking and English-speaking communities to say with a very large degree of certainty that e-books have serious drawbacks in certain kind of reading. When it comes to listening to sermons and Bible reading, e-book Bible is the main culprit in many exegetical fallacies, especially when the interpreter rips the text out of its context.
In my experiment, I usually ask how many have a cell phone with the Bible in it. Then, I ask how many have a Kindle Bible. Usually a large number of people have their e-book Bibles. Then, I get out my printed Bible and call out the passage I wish to discuss. Thereafter, I ask those with cell phones how many verses they can access. Most can only access 3-4 verses. At best, some can get 10 verses. The Kindle can get a few more. In my Bible, I can get about 80 verses on two opened pages. Who can read the context more? I can!
Some may say that most people have excellent memory and can recall the context. In every single instance I conducted this experiment, I’ve yet to have one single person recall the context before the verses clearly for me without flipping back to it. Believe me, people have very bad short-term memory.
Some may say that they can flip back in their e-book Bible to see the context. The only problem is when these people flip back in their electronic Bibles, they can’t see what was originally on their screen. They’re limited by their 3, 10 or at most 15 verses right in front of them. What if I’m preaching nonsense and say that the Bible says thus and thus, but no one can check me? You’d better be able to see your 80 verses in front of your opened printed Bible and not rely on your 3-4 verses in your cell phone. Otherwise, we’re pretty much up the creek without an oar then, aren’t we? Many who favor electronic hegemony in fact are up the creek without an oar. That’s because the medium DOES MATTER. The medium impacts reception/interpretation. Anyone who says otherwise is probably equally incapable of reading well in context.
Certain books need context more than others. This is my experience. For example, if I’m reading Barth’s Dogmatics in print, I can better appreciate the context on which he made a certain claim. If I’m reading a monograph (e.g., in biblical studies) in humanities that depends largely on subtle argumentation, context is everything. In my teaching experience, I can almost always tell which students are used to reading out of context. These are the same students who quote what a commentator says about another commentator but attribute the opinion to the wrong commentator. These are the same students who use e-books and even e-commentaries. I have graded papers to prove that. So, the e-book argument isn’t all that simplistic at all. Since most of my Chinese work is in the monograph variety, I would resist any overture to turn them into e-books. Even if I lose some sales, it’s better than being misread and misquoted. I almost regret allowing certain Chinese publishers to do my stuff in electronic format. In fact, it didn’t only fail to increase sales. It killed sales and the entire series. While I plan on republishing and updating the series, I won’t ever allow it to be in electronic form again.Critical reading needs a printed medium.
Other books may be more conducive to electronic reading, as I said earlier. I have dictionaries in my computer I read for data. At the same time, I would assert that this kind of reading is the lowest form of reading that most people with advanced education beyond secondary education (high school) should get away from. E-books may have their place, but their place isn’t as big as the technology worshippers claim. IF e-books take the primary place, I foresee more non-contextual reading that import one’s theological agenda (aka “theological reading”) into the text rather than letting the text speak. At that point, if the said text is the Bible, that leads us back to raping the text for our cannon fodder.
The problem doesn’t only deal with printed books. It has to do with a lack of understanding of how communication works. It also has to do with a blind worship of certain popular technological trends without considering many surrounding factors. The lack of understanding and blind worship of trends can extend to other areas in life where we mistake regress for progress.
By the way, I do use a Kindle to read novels when I fly on long-hauls and I have excellent memory, but e-book isn’t the last word on book matter.