Why Books are Better Than the Internet — That’s Right, I Said It

The Folger Library in Washington, 1938 -- Harris & Ewing Collection (Library of Congress)

The internet is overwhelming; that much is clear. The murky part comes in trying to define exactly how it fits (or should fit) in our lives. This is the subject of a recent wave of books that all take different positions and are all expertly reviewed by Adam Gopnik in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Gopnik divides these prevailing internet philosophies into three schools: the Better-Nevers (“the internet will destroy us all!”), the Ever-Wasers (“eh — this conversation happens with every new technology, everyone calm down”), and the Never-Betters (“the internet will save us all!”). Though all arguments are interesting (as is the article), what struck me most of all was Gopnik’s comparison of the internet to a library, which got me thinking — for the first time, much to my surprise — of how the internet compares to books, and how this might help us find a tree to hold on to in the information flood.

When I started my first blog a few years back, everyone told me to write every day. “Write short!” they said. “And write often! Every day! If you don’t, then no one will read your blog.” I couldn’t fathom why anyone would prefer to read something that refreshed every day as opposed to say, a week, or month, or even a quarter. Daily newspapers have always given me anxiety; when I have one I speed through it, mostly skimming, reading only the most consuming articles in depth, and triumphantly throwing away each section as I get to the end since not having the paper anymore means I completed a task and I can start fresh tomorrow. Books and magazines have always been more my speed. I read them leisurely and they don’t threaten me with a refresh unless the library wants them back. The pressure of updating that blog sucked all the joy out of it and I soon gave up.

Before we started this blog we decided it would be updated no more than once each week, that it should be a pleasure — a service, even — for our clients and readers. We don’t need to yell at you to remind you that we’re here. And when we do put something up we hope you’ll pour yourself a cup of coffee and take the time to read it and then, hopefully, find some inspiration to turn off the internet and write something yourself. I didn’t quite realize that I was responding to my own inner need for the internet (that great love of my information-needy life) to leave me alone already.

The great cartoonist Roger Langridge recently joined Twitter and posted his startled reaction on his blog:

“I mean, honestly, you people terrify me. . . . [E]very time I turned it on it was just a wall of noise. How can anybody actually think in that environment?”

I know how he feels. I found his blog post by accident while going to a popular comics blog to look for news about the recent changes at manga publisher Tokyopop. When I got there I found another article at the top of the page about old Crystar comics. I went to eBay to see if I could buy some. I didn’t find any but I did find some missing back issues of G.I. Joe that I added to my Amazon wish list. Then, forgetting about Tokyopop completely, I went back to the task I was trying to finish before I went on the internet. Suddenly remembering the Tokyopop question an hour later, I went back to the blog at precisely the moment that another cartoonist tweeted about Roger’s post, a notification of which flashed out of the corner of my screen. I never did find out what happened at Tokyopop last week. And come to think of it, I didn’t finish the work I was doing beforehand.

Though many characterize the internet as a horrendously written magazine or newspaper, full of distracting ads and irrelevant articles on topics in which we may only have a passing interest yet stop to read anyway, Gopnik’s later characterization of the internet as a horrendously organized library is much more accurate. The major difference being, of course, that the library is now always open and we are always in it. He says:

“There is the sociology section, the science section, old sheet music and menus, and you can go to the periodicals room anytime and read old issues of the New Statesman. (And you can whisper loudly to a friend in the next carrel to get the hockey scores.)”

There are publications within this library, but they are hard to locate and even harder to focus on amid the suggestions for other things to read and the instantly satisfied urges to check something else.

While we used to rely on footnotes, endnotes, and librarians to help us find the next bit of information with careful, methodical purpose, now we rely on hyperlinks, which are always blinking in our faces. Notes are never meant to supplant the text in which they appear, but add context that you may or may not need; their usual place at the bottom of a page or even the end of a book means they are meant to be read later, when you’ve finished the present thought, catalyzed the argument, maybe even wrote your own note in the margin. However, the differently colored, often animated hyperlink now requires you to leave the page to find the quotes and analysis that used to be in the text, creating a free-association information stream in which, as Gopnik points out, we don’t surf as much as float, wherever our whims may lead:

“[T]he peacefulness, the serenity that we feel away from the Internet . . . has less to do with being no longer harried by others than with being less oppressed by the force of our own inner life.”

Left to this stream we are lost in noise like Roger; we walk into the library, see the first wall of books, and either panic and leave or start randomly picking through volumes as quickly as our self-satisfied neurons will take us.

This is why the book, electronic or otherwise, is so comforting and so necessary today. Books are storehouses of single-topic information, comprehensive, specific, and complete. All the information needed is contained within. Instead of wasting valuable brain energy deciding where to go next, the forward flip of each page makes that decision for us, reserving all our energy for learning. It makes sense that Apple and other e-reader companies have devoted their advertising imagery to scenes of people lounging at home in their pajamas with these devices comfortably in their laps; reading a book is relaxing, demanding nothing from us other than to look and think, which is the exact thing Roger found himself unable to do when faced with the enormity of the flood.

When we read the internet we feel stupid and humbled in the face of what we don’t know and can’t find the time to learn. When we read a book we feel enlivened and intelligent, immersed in knowledge we can enjoy in quiet comfort and we long for this. Alec Wilkinson captured this yearning beautifully in a turn-of-the-decade reflection:

“A prediction: A desire for narrative, which is coherence, will return. People will soon grow tired of hearing every thought in everyone’s head and look to those people and sources who know how to select from life’s thousand and one things and tell stories, whether actual or imagined.”

Book writers — we need you now more than ever.

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