What Was a Book?

In a culture where eReaders and tablets become increasingly popular and bookstores continue to go out of business, the age of printed material may soon be coming to an end. While many succumb to the convenience of modern technology, self-proclaimed book enthusiast Aaron Jaffe, an English professor at the University of Louisville, stands in stark opposition to this digitalization of texts.

Jaffe’s presentation, given on Feb. 20, focused on the history of the instruction manual as a means of typifying printed material. Using examples that ranged from sewing machines to the Ford Model T, Jaffe illustrated that manuals, though seldom read, serve as a connection between an owner and a product. In a similar manner, books connect readers to bountiful information on virtually every subject.

Describing books as “perpetual novelty items,” Jaffe spoke enthusiastically and solemnly about the importance of preserving the printed word. Though passionate about the concept of the physical book, Jaffe doesn’t deny the various advantages of digital publications; specifically, being able to search millions of documents almost instantly. Nevertheless, he requires his students to buy actual books and doesn’t permit laptops, tablets or the likes into his classroom, arguing that the infiniteness of electronic reading is not stimulating, but rather distracting, overwhelming and excessive.

An eBook and a real book are not the same, Jaffe argues. Though digitalized media may retain the information held between the bound covers of libraries and bookshops, the essence of the book is lost. A book is its own entity, an individual personality with physical and figurative dimensions. Jaffe contends that the pleasure of reading comes just as much from the relationship between a reader and the pages as it does from their contents. Admiring all aspects of a book, from its smell, to its weight, from its height, to its thickness, or from the strength of its spine, to the contrasting delicateness of its pages, Jaffe hopes the day will never come when a child must ask, “what was a book?”

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