…and you don’t leave yourself much room for critical thinking.

I’ve been meaning to post about this for some time, but with my trip to England and various other commitments have simply not gotten around to it.

Cushing Academy is clearing out its library and going all-digital.

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’

Instead of a library, the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a “learning center,’’ though that is only one of the names in contention for the new space. In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.

And to replace those old pulpy devices that have transmitted information since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s, they have spent $10,000 to buy 18 electronic readers made by Amazon.com and Sony. Administrators plan to distribute the readers, which they’re stocking with digital material, to students looking to spend more time with literature….

“We see the gain as greater than the loss,’’ said Gisele Zangari, chairwoman of the math department, who like other teachers has plans for all her students to do their class reading on electronic books by next year. “This is the start of a new era.’’

Cushing is one of the first schools in the country to abandon its books.

“I’m not aware of any other library that has done this,’’ said Keith Michael Fiels, executive director of the American Library Association, a Chicago-based organization that represents the nation’s libraries.

He said the move raises at least two concerns: Many of the books on electronic readers and the Internet aren’t free and it may become more difficult for students to happen on books with the serendipity made possible by physical browsing. There’s also the question of the durability of electronic readers.

“Unless every student has a Kindle and an unlimited budget, I don’t see how that need is going to be met,’’ Fiels said. “Books are not a waste of space, and they won’t be until a digital book can tolerate as much sand, survive a coffee spill, and have unlimited power. When that happens, there will be next to no difference between that and a book.’’

William Powers, author of a forthcoming book based on a paper he published at Harvard called “Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal,’’ called the changes at Cushing “radical’’ and “a tremendous loss for students.’’

“There are modes of learning and thinking that at the moment are only available from actual books,’’ he said. “There is a kind of deep-dive, meditative reading that’s almost impossible to do on a screen. Without books, students are more likely to do the grazing or quick reading that screens enable, rather than be by themselves with the author’s ideas.’’

Yet students at Cushing say they look forward to the new equipment, and the brave new world they’re ushering in.

Tia Alliy, a 16-year-old junior, said she visits the library nearly every day, but only once looked for a book in the stacks. She’s not alone. School officials said when they checked library records one day last spring only 48 books had been checked out, and 30 of those were children’s books.

“When you hear the word ‘library,’ you think of books,’’ Alliy said. “But very few students actually read them. And the more we use e-books, the fewer books we have to carry around.’’

Jemmel Billingslea, an 18-year-old senior, thought about the prospect of a school without books. It didn’t bother him.

“It’s a little strange,’’ he said. “But this is the future.’’

What’s fascinating to me are the kinds of authority on display in the quotes from this article.

We have some dull old types on the one hand. One, the executive director of the American Library Association, an organization that has done a bit of thinking about the shape of libraries in the digital future. Another, a visiting Harvard fellow and media analyst who’s written a 75-page position paper on the differences between print and electronic reading. Both are concerned that books be preserved as one important kind of technology among others.

On the other, some lively progressive types. The headmaster, who looks at books and sees nothing but an outdated technology. The chairwoman of the math department, who is glibly looking forward to the start of a new era (never heard that line before). And we have some teenagers, who shrug their shoulders in the face of the inevitable future.

It seems clear to me who’s got the authoritative arguments on their side, and who doesn’t. There is an entire field–the history of the book–that grapples with the distinct contributions and limitations of books. There are related fields that study oral language, memory, media, and so on. There’s the ever popular story about Plato and his worry that writing on papyrus was weakening memory and changing the way we think, which we could cite as an analagous site of change. In fact, there’s so much information on these subjects that it’s not even possible to grab all of it–you’ve got to be selective.

A couple of pieces have cropped up or come across my screen that deserve mention as taking a critical look at the choices involved in the old technology of the book and the new technology of electronic reading. Nicholson Baker, from the August 3, 2009 New Yorker, discusses the Kindle 2. He finds it a lot less compelling than a book, for various reasons that he spells out in the article. One that strikes me as quite pertinent is the loss of page numbers: instead of having a single page number, Kindle books have page ranges (e.g., 1205-1215 or the like). That’s a regression in terms of technology; it turns out that the book is more advanced in terms of retrieval of single pages. (Baker’s also been at it a long time: his essay “Lumber” in The Size of Thoughts is a provocative look at reading and its various technologies and limitations.)

Another is this roundtable-style debate on a blog at the NYT today: “Does the Brain like E-Books?” There are some fascinating factoids to be found here, though I haven’t had time to digest them:

–on e-reading, and multi-tasking more generally:

“To a great extent, the computer’s usefulness for serious reading depends on the user’s strength of character. Distractions abound on most people’s computer screens. The reading speed reported in academic studies does not include delays induced by clicking away from the text to see the new email that just arrived or check out what’s new on your favorite blog. In one study, workers switched tasks about every three minutes and took over 23 minutes on average to return to a task. Frequent task switching costs time and interferes withthe concentration needed to think deeply about what you read.”

(Hence my recent move to paper and pencil drafting. Also, the pad and pencil is a lot lighter than my laptop. Less back-breaking to carry to the coffeeshop, and less distracting from my work once I’m there. Helps me save my distractions for actual human interaction, which is much more refreshing.)

–on the effects of digital immersion (this one’s by a neuroscientist)

“No one really knows the ultimate effects of an immersion in a digital medium on the young developing brain. We do know a great deal, however, about the formation of what we know as the expert reading brain that most of us possess to this point in history….

I have no doubt that the new mediums will accomplish many of the goals we have for the reading brain, particularly the motivation to learn to decode, read and experience the knowledge that is available. As a cognitive neuroscientist, however, I believe we need rigorous research about whether the reading circuit of our youngest members will be short-circuited, figuratively and physiologically.

For my greatest concern is that the young brain will never have the time (in milliseconds or in hours or in years) to learn to go deeper into the text after the first decoding, but rather will be pulled by the medium to ever more distracting information, sidebars, and now,perhaps, videos (in the new vooks).

The child’s imagination and children’s nascent sense of probity and introspection are no match for a medium that creates a sense of urgency to get to the next piece of stimulating information. The attention span of children may be one of the main reasons why an immersion in on-screen reading is so engaging, and it may also be why digital reading may ultimately prove antithetical to the long-in-development, reflective nature of the expert reading brain as we know it.”

Yikes–no one knows the ultimate effects digital reading will have on the mind. But clearly we should just tell ourselves, “Hey, this is the wave of the future–not only is it inevitable, but it’s undoubtedly going to be super-duper-awesome!”

What’s funny is that it’s the nay-sayers who are doing all the research. The destroyers seem content to know nothing and to remain know-nothings. Is there a correlation between knowing how to read, and retaining something of a skeptical stance toward the world, having even a shred of resistance to the allure of technolust? Probably.

For myself, I wouldn’t trade the ability to do a full-text search on Google Books or Eighteenth-Century Collections Online for gold. (Well, maybe for gold.) But I’m also not planning on reading anyone’s collected works online. It shouldn’t be impossible for an intelligent person to select the right tool for the task.

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