Books in the digital age

Friday January 25, 2013


At a critical point in teaching "A Raisin In the Sun" by Lorraine Hansberry, the vocabulary gets challenging for ninth graders and we pull out the dictionary cart. This year, I knew that this quaint exercise in word study had become old-fashioned. Even so, the kids love looking up the words for some reason, and reverently go through the exercise without a complaint.

But I see it now. On-line word search makes our old friend the dictionary a dinosaur. However, even the students admit, looking up words printed on actual pages is the best way to really learn them. They just don’t like to do it when they are busy hurrying through their writing assignments. They groan if I drag out the dictionary when they ask me how to spell a word or find a definition. I’m swimming against the tide.

I know firsthand just how quickly the digital age can create dinosaurs of our old friends, the dictionary, and now ever more rapidly, even the idea of real books. It doesn’t matter if the hype is that e-readers will replace books. We avid readers of pages between hard covers will love them even more. Real books will never disappear.

My pitch to the independent bookseller is that books new, used, and rare will actually become more collectable and valuable, if not as plentiful. Books themselves are still sold in much greater numbers than e-books. Libraries are redefining themselves to be more e-book available, but they still only make up 2 percent of the inventory. Also, the art of the printing press is actually expanding and there are many more young people learning to print and bind books than ever before! So I can’t believe there is any such thing as a trend toward the end of the book as we know it. Too many of us actually love books, collect books, and prefer them to any e-device at all.


A huge factor in the enjoyment of real books is the independent bookstore. Unlike the big retail bookstores, which have lost their novelty, the independent bookstore is still one of life’s great pleasures. Consider a trip to the bookstore when you have the time some winter afternoon. Even better, make it a weekly ritual. This practice enhances the joy of life.

Of course one of the big ones is Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt. It’s big but it’s independent, has a great café, and they are the first bookstore in America to offer a self-publishing operation called Espresso Book Machine with the actual presses on-site. You can find anything at Northshire and they have fabulous author events on a regular schedule.

Visit Broadside Books in Northampton, Shelburne Falls Booksellers, Crawford Doyle on Madison Avenue in New York, or Herridge Books in Wellfleet, just to name four of my far-flung favorites. You can’t top my all-time favorite, The Bookstore in Lenox, of course. Chat it up with owner Matthew Tannenbaum, who will be your cheerful guide to a favorite genre section. It’s quiet, there’s nice music sometimes, and you have all the time in the world for some peace with good books. As Emily Dickinson put it so well, "There is no Frigate like a Book/ to take us lands awayĆ  Without oppress of Toll-/ How frugal is the Chariot/That bears a Human soul."

The kids still whine when I tell them to look up a word in the dictionary if they are in the act of writing on a computer. Spell Checker is faster. Or they just ask me how to spell it, which I do for them about 25 percent of the time to show off or because I like the sound of the letters instead of the sight of the computer screen. I love it best when I drag the dictionary over to where a student is working and make a big show of how much fun it is for me to look up good words and go through the parts of spelling, parts of speech, and the subtleties of the various definitions.

It’s an uphill battle but I feel like I’m passing on some old-fashioned relic that may be nice for them to remember someday. I often remind the kids that I think the more a person reads the more successful they will be in life. That may not mean money or stuff. It may just mean happy.

Colin Harrington is an educator
and writer and occasional Eagle


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