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What’s the future of books in a digital world?

“The most important thing to point out,” says Michael Suarez, director of UVA’s Rare Book School, “is that despite lots of writing to the contrary, the book is not dead.” Suarez notes that in 2010 more titles than ever were published worldwide. Also, though the emergence of new media has changed the way we get information and tell stories, it’s just another in a long line of expressive media. “The world of writing, or chirographic culture, didn’t replace orality,” he says. “Print didn’t replace writing by hand, film didn’t stop radio, television didn’t stop the world of film.”

Suarez, a self-described “archaeologist of the book,” studies books as artifacts that illuminate the values of the culture in which they were created. “Part of what I’m doing is advocating the importance of the book in history and as history,” he says. “I start with the physical object and teach people how to understand the society that created it. Books are created by communities,” he says, “and if you know how to read the material and social codes that are inscribed in them, then every book is alive with the judgments of its makers.”

He’s certain of the relevance of books in today’s world, but he’s careful not to downplay the digital undertow and its implications for society. “We do know that the digital environment will change the structures of human knowledge,” he says. “It’s also changing the structures of the academy.” And, says Suarez, it’s important to explore what’s being lost—as well as gained.

Michael F. Suarez, S.J. Terry Doran

At a lecture he recently gave at the Grolier Club in New York, Suarez showed a slide of a painting—Antoine-Jean Gros’ Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa. He then showed a slide of the same painting from a different source, and then another version. Each slide displayed a reproduction of the same work, and yet each had different light, a different tincture and a distinctly different feel. It was also hard to imagine, from the images, that the painting is a sweeping 16 feet high and 21½ feet wide. “You could never know that from looking at the digital surrogates,” he says. “What are the ways that our substitution of these simulacra may distort our perception of the work of art itself?”

The same question can be asked of digital reproductions of literary works. “How would you know unless you knew?” says Suarez. “How would you know what was distorted in a digital representation of a 17th-century book unless you had long experience with the original?”

Also potentially troubling is the use of digital reproductions for decontextualizing data mining operations, instead of “the sustained engagement required for the close reading that lies at the heart of humanistic learning,” Suarez says.

In keyword searches, texts can be taken out of context, and a student may not understand the reach and implication of a selection within a larger piece.

Take the 18th-century novel Tom Jones, for example. If a student sought to discover the comedic elements so essential to the book, what words would she type into a search engine?

Suarez gives another example of a student using the keywords “servant” and “poetry,” and recovering every use of those words or some variant and then writing a book or paper on servitude in 17th- and 18th-century poetry. “Is that a book you would want to read?” he says. “What happens to our students when the enterprise of reading is replaced by mere searching?”

A central question, therefore, is how to navigate the new era. Suarez poses it this way: If the great benefit of the digital age is unhampered access to oceans of data and information, the great danger is that we’ll get lost in it all, unable to sift for meaning and swallowed up by trivia. “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” he asks, quoting T.S. Eliot.

It has much to do, Suarez says, with the way we read now; the constant scrolling of computers, e-readers and smart phones affects our minds. “In deep reading, the brain becomes more synaptically connected,” he says. “Digital reading promotes a kind of snippet-like reading that can have a fragmenting effect.”

What’s at stake, and what must be fought for, is our “ability to have sustained engagement with texts, to attain and retain the knowledge that comes from reading, and to grow slowly toward the wisdom that eventually comes from seeking knowledge.” As Suarez says, “In doing so, our lives become a little more authentically good, a little more true and a little more beautiful.”

Oxford Scholarly Editions Online

Michael Suarez is also the editor in chief of likely the biggest digital humanities project in the world, Oxford Scholarly Editions Online. “Oxford University has the richest collection of scholarly editions of Euripides, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Shakespeare, Locke, Hume, George Eliot and Dickens, among others,” he says. The 12-year project entails the full digitization of hundreds of editions. It will launch in 2012 with a wide range of material written between 1485 and 1660, including the poetry of John Donne, the letters of Thomas Hobbes and Shakespeare’s plays. The project promises to be easily navigable, peer-reviewed by internationally renowned scholars and unparalleled in terms of scope and quality. “We’re in the digital world,” says Suarez. “It’s not going away, and it’s a good thing.” Suarez also co-edited The Oxford Companion to the Book, a two-volume reference work on the history of books and manuscripts from the invention of writing to the proliferation of the e-book.