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November 14, 2003

TT: On a screen, darkly

Our old friend Bruce Bawer e-mailed us from Europe this morning, weighing in on the great e-book-vs.-printed-book debate, about which you can read more by going here and here:

Not to get too lofty about this, but this argument about physical books vs e-books is sort of a variation on the conflict between Hebrew and Greek notions of body and soul. Is the body an essential aspect of human identity or just a container for a soul? For most purposes, reading things on a screen is fine with me. But then I think of my very favorite novel. I used to read it every nine months. Each time I opened it up again, I expected that it wouldn't have as powerful an effect on me as last time. I was always wrong. I was transported. And when I got to the end, I was always in tears. I would close the paperback and just look at it, in awe that this object in my hand contained these people who were so real to me and whose lives moved me so deeply. It seemed a religious object. Reading that novel on an e-book, I know, would be a very different experience.

That's beautiful, and I hesitate to disagree, however tentatively...but even so, I do wonder whether a person who grew up with e-books might not be capable of broadly similar, comparably intense feelings. Of course they would assume a different aspect, if only by virtue of the fact that (as Bruce so acutely points out) an e-book has no "body." But would they be less powerful as a result?

I don't know, of course. But the thought occurs to me--and I don't know why it took so long--that some of my own feelings about the body/soul problem may well arise from the fact that music was the first art form in which I became deeply involved as an executant. Sheet music, no matter how handsome the paper and typography, is not an art object in and of itself. Rather, it's a set of instructions by which humans of flesh and blood may call into evanescent existence the non-corporeal "art object" that is a "piece" of music. Could it be that my early experience as a musician now conditions the way I think about all art? I'm sure, for example, that it made me more open to abstract art and plotless ballet (for what art is so abstract as music?). Perhaps it has also made it easier for me to accept the idea of the "bodiless" book.

On the other hand, here's a thought experiment: try to imagine a ballet like George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments "performed" on a computer screen by a "company" of articulated stick figures. All the movements, which are the essence of the dance, would be visible--but the viewer would experience them as a three-dimensional geometrical theorem, not an interaction between...well, souls. So long as we are on this earth, there can be no souls without bodies. That's one of the reasons why I love ballet (it's the "word" made as flesh), and why synthesizers will never replace live orchestras.

And will any of this stop the e-book from replacing the printed book? Don't count on it.

Posted November 14, 2003 3:55 AM

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