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In defence of the book part 2: peripheral vision

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There’s another aspect to the physicality of books. Books have a kind of terrain; they are 3D objects.

You know, roughly, where a passage comes in the book, by its physical position – how far in, whereabouts on the page. Of course, search functions can easily locate a certain passage in an eBook, and you can bookmark away to your heart’s content – but what they don’t give you is the broader context. They don’t show you what is all around in that part of the landscape.

For example, I use Accordance Bible Software. I have 10 Bibles I routinely search, plus Greek New Testaments, Hebrew versions (can’t read it but it makes me look good), and tons of older versions, etc. Fantastic software and invaluable for searching. But often when I’ve found the passage I’m looking for, I’ll look it up in a physical Bible, because I want to see whereabouts it comes in that book – what happens before and after. Of course I can do this in the electronic version. I can scroll up and down. But I find that I respond to the physical context, more easily. I need to see the landscape surrounding that passage. For this reason I don’t find it intuitive to use the many commentaries I have in Accordance, because I need to see  bigger chunks of text. Using a Bible dictionary, like the Anchor Bible Dictionary, however, is much more straightforward, because there you’re only looking at one article, you know that context doesn’t matter so much.

Books allow for peripheral vision, that perspective. This is a bit tricky to explain, but much of my time these days is spent researching. Often you can’t be sure whether a particular line of research will provide an interesting new direction, a minor diversion, or prove a dead end. What you do is learn to scan the book, to spot interesting threads and ideas, to pick out keywords. You learn how to quickly scan across an open spread and get a feeling for whether it’s helpful or not. Can you do that with an eBook? I work with a lot of journal articles on PDF and I find it much harder to make a quick assessment than when I have them on the printed page.

Obviously this doesn’t apply to all books, especially those like novels which you read sequentially. But I find that there is something about having the work there, opened in front of you, which makes it easier to navigate and to assess.