Getting the books, or at least bits of them

One of the great revolutions during my life as a student was getting access to photocopying. More precisely, this happened during my time as a postgraduate research student: the University of Cambridge installed a photocopier in the library that could be used by students and on which they could – within the law of course – copy book extracts or articles. It allowed me to take some source materials home with me and work on them there. Recently I came across the pile of photocopied papers from that time (yes, I actually kept them all) and I was a little disturbed that, in some of these cases, I may only have read the few pages I copied rather than the whole work. In fact I wonder whether the emergence of this great new technology may have, just a little, undermined the integrity of my scholarship. Still, perhaps I did read the whole books, and just copied the pages I needed to refer to more specifically. I hope so.

A year or two after that time I was a young lecturer in Dublin, and I remember a student singing the praises of the photocopier, while then remarking rather disarmingly that ‘photocopying is not an aid to reading, it’s a substitute for it. You copy the work and carry it about, in the hope or expectation that you acquire its content and meaning by osmosis. But not by reading.’

Photocopying extracts from books and articles probably began what is now sometimes described as ‘disarticulation’ (a term taken from medicine), where students (and others) no longer take a whole work and address the full conceptual framework it expresses, but go for extracts and selected passages or chapters. Apart from photocopying, this particular trend was also supported by publishers who put together ‘highlights’ books that set out extracts from materials of relevance to the topic, sometimes with explanations to place them in context, sometimes without. And now more recently, we have the emergence of electronic publishing that will allow readers to purchase digital copies of chapters from books. One such service, assessed in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is Inkling – which offers book chapters for iPad users. It describes what it sells as follows:

‘Inkling brings the world’s best content to iPad with interactivity, social collaboration and simple ease-of-use. No more heavy, expensive textbooks to carry around campus. Inkling textbooks are more interactive, more flexible and cheaper. Download Inkling today and try a free chapter. It’s an entirely new way to learn.’

It is easy to feel sympathy for students having to find a small fortune to pay for hard copy textbooks. For them the possibility of getting digital copies of just the most important chapters and having to pay much less for this is a real benefit. But what does it do intellectually? Are we reaching the point at which nobody ever considers a complete idea because they never get to read the entire train of thought through the pages of a book?

The answer is not to reject the technology; it is here to stay, and as an iPad owner I can say that it is very very good. But we may need to look at how we use it, and to what extent we present scholarship as bite-sized expositions rather than as the elaboration of something conceptual. The answer lies in the hands of academics, and what they ask or expect students to do. I sometimes wonder whether, at least in some subject areas, we ask students to read too many bits and pieces, and not enough full works. We need to encourage more deep thinking. Or so I feel.

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3 Comments on “Getting the books, or at least bits of them”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    This brings back some personal memories: an avid reader since I was 5 I grew up spending a lot of time in my father’s library which included quite an eclectic collection of masterpieces of world literature and…wait for it..endless rows of Reader’s Digest magazines (Selezione, as was the name of the Italian version), yes that feelgood sampling of what was important for the home and family, peppered with reader-inspired jokes.
    Founded in 1922 ('s_Digest)the Reader’s Digest has recently undergone some very rough times economically, not unusual as far as the print publishing industry is concerned, one might argue, and still I think that The Digest has suffered more than others because it was some kind of Internet precursor, it offered to its readers the possibility to *sample*, to have a taste of longer pieces of literature, to let the mind ‘browse’ one would say today through a stimulating array of topics. Most of the times, what I read in the Digest was enough to consider buying the whole book. Interestingly this is a practice that still stays with me today, I don’t read the Digest anymore but I still buy books having read snippets on the Net.
    From a media scholarly perspective a debate has been raging between those like Nicholas Carr, ( “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, July/August 2008, or Maggie Jackson author of Distracted (, which argue that the sheer amount of information and activity in our always-on culture is fracturing our attention and hence our ability to process information and more positive views, expressed among others by
    Clay Shirky ( “Why Abundance Is Good: A Reply to Nick Carr,” Encyclopaedia Britannica Blog, July 17, 2008,
    Personally I think that students will sill read full works, provided that the choice of books is appropriate for the educational task and, above all, if the book is *good*. The future of reading/writing will be an eclectic mix of print and electronic material, besides advances in the quality of monitor/screen resolution etc. are bound to make reading long texts on electronic devices more feasible. Also, established literary genres like the novel, for example, will become much more malleable adjusting themselves to the new media of delivery,being iPads, smrt phones etc. but such malleability is not entirely new, if one thinks that nevels were serialized in newspapers throught the ninetheenth century. Serialization, fragmentation have always challenged the redear’s attention, the internet has just increased the intensity of the task…As for myself, I’ll always be grateful to that tiny, popular magazine that, a bit like a contemporary browser, opened up so many windows for a curious little girl.

  2. jfryar Says:

    There’s a very good example of this from the world of physics. Back when quantum mechanics was being developed, physicists realised quickly that, while the maths described the outcome of experiments to great precision, noone understood what the theory actually meant. Hence you had thought-experiments like Schrodinger’s cat (the cat can exist in a superposition of states and be both alive and dead simultaneously) to show how absurd the theory was. You also had things like the Copenhagan interpretation (observers are necessary to settle a physical system into one state rather than another)as people struggled to make sense of it all.

    Eventually a new generation of physicists gave up and started playing around with the maths rather than worrying about what the maths meant. They made good progress; quantum electrodynamics, electroweak theory, quantum chromodynamics, and the standard model of particle physics. Progress then stalled – the problems that were unresolved in the 1970s are now the unresolved problems in 2011. Plus we now have dark matter and energy to explain and, embarrassingly, none of our theories predicted such stuff!

    Many physicists now believe the reason for this is because we fragmented our understanding. Two generations of students were unlikely to read the notes, ideas, papers, etc by someone like Einstein. Instead they’ve be shown how he developed the equations of general relativity and the ways we’ve subsequently learnt to solve them. We’ve taken the maths of quantum physics and separated them from the context in which they were developed and the questions those developing the theory raised at the time.

    Now we’re having to go back … re-inserting Einstein’s ‘cosmological constant’ that was abandoned in the 1920s when Hubble and others showed the universe was expanding. Which I think is a good lesson for other fields not to fragment sources and continue to examine the wider context in which those fragments are written!

  3. AAAARG is an online repository of critical theory, art, philosophy, social science and other texts which manifests aspects of this issue. There was an exchange (perhaps poetry) on the discussion pages which went as follows,

    Red King
    28 January 2010 11.46AM

    a thousand little people at a thousand little computers reading dense theory and rarely if ever conversing about the content – why?

    Phil Slade
    28 January 2010 12.07PM

    It’s because it requires effort.

    28 January 2010 12.33PM

    To collect or not to collect, that is the question…

    28 January 2010 3.31PM

    head down trying to write a thesis

    28 January 2010 5.57PM

    Reading? I just upload and download…

    28 January 2010 6.26PM

    primitive accumulation

    28 January 2010 9.46PM

    what is there to say?

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