Of Books and Blogs

Stephen Marshall
01 Oct 2015

The book was not always the orthodox repository of knowledge under threat from new media: it was, once, the latest hand-held text device. Even writing was, originally, a new-fangled technology. And, as Nicholas Carr has pointed out, Socrates was famously sceptical about writing – as it let people become ‘filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom’. In effect, writing allowed the lazy and ignorant to cheat, by accessing knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise possess, or have the wit to enunciate themselves. Socrates preferred dialogue as a more interactive path to true understanding – though we only know this because Plato took the trouble to write it down.

Plato & Socrates deliberate the iPad

    Today, of course, it is the digital media that are in danger of disconcerting us. We live in an era when there has never been so much comment, hearsay and naked fabrication, dressed up in typographical respectability, and cast round the world with indecent haste. In the age of the search engine, authoritative knowledge can be lost among the textual flotsam and jetsam of a promiscuous sea of ephemera and verbal effluent.

    But then, it’s all too easy for us – as writers – to be seduced by the internet’s instant, ubiquitous accessibility. In a click we can check a fact, pinpoint a definition or unearth a quotation, without any grounding in the territory. At a keystroke we cherry-pick some snippet of script, out of time and context, and press it into service for our own purposes. We can discover, in point-something of a second, that it was Venetian scholar-editor Hieronimo Squarciafico who said that ‘abundance of books makes men less studious’ (in 1477 – in a book, no less). Those of us who grew up crafting words in ink and paper may feel a tinge of guilt at how embarrassingly easy it all is, as we copy and paste from some second-hand internet page (remembering, of course, to attribute the source!), without having to invest in a book, or make the once physical, visceral pilgrimage to the Library.

    So the book, as an essential building block of knowledge, is under threat – or is it?

    Publishers and booksellers, at least, assure us that the printed book market is in rude health. In popular publishing, there is seemingly no loss of appetite for the beautifully produced cookery book, page-turning novel or celebrity biography.

    Meanwhile, in academic publishing, there is surely still room for the textbook which packages hard-earned wisdom in easy doses, and for the research monograph as a bedrock of scholarship. As Carr suggests, the extended act of reading the printed page is valuable ‘not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds’. So there seems still a place for full-length books, just as there is still room for the feature-length film – even if we watch it online or on DVD.

    Indeed, we are positively spoiled by the plurality of today’s formats. An article like Carr’s – originally published in The Atlantic magazine and online – has been reprinted in several books, which are in turn viewable online via Google Books. We may struggle to remember that a ‘computer’ was once a room-sized card-fed number cruncher – later, a ‘word processor’ or games console. Now, when we catch up on the news or skype a friend on our laptop, we are treating the computer as a television or telephone. Formats are now so interchangeable that, in a sense, the medium is no longer the message.

    So we’re not facing an either/or situation: print and text coexist with speech and video. And there’s still a role for books and journals in the mix, coexisting with blogs and tweets – complementing each other, on shelf and on screen. This is the communication ecosystem we now find ourselves in, as Built Environment itself introduces its blog and twitter feed, linking to the journal and website, in a way that we hope is convenient and synergistic.

    As we go live, indeed, our current issue is Books that Shaped our Thinking. We feature books, because we believe that these classic full-length treatises still have the capacity to inform, inspire and influence, even as less well-thumbed tomes shuffle off the library shelves to sulk in the stores.

    So here, in launching our blog, Blogged Environment, we give a platform both to the latest issue of the journal, and what we may call Books That Shaped the Built Environment. Bibliophiles and techno-sceptics – and Google-age Socrates, who knows – are invited to take a look. 


As ever we welcome further Built Environment blogs and tweets on this theme!