My relationship with books is changing. We used to have a pedestrian love affair: i would buy them, read them, lavish praise upon them and then retire them to a shelf, where they would live out a happy retirement, with occasional dusting. From time to time, if they were lucky, i’d find a newspaper clip (back in the days when i read newspapers made of actual paper) which i’d tear out and tuck into the cover. To this day i still enjoy opening an old book and finding the collection of cuttings within.
Today, my relationship with books is different. Very often the physical text is just the manifestation of a wider, virtual, learning community. I still read books, often on paper, but typically one can engage with the author, one can read updates on a website, one can follow the Twitter feed and get into the debate.
A book is a frozen view of our thinking at one point in time. A social learning community creates it’s meaning in the moment. Learning today values both. There is value in seeing these frozen snapshots in time, our chronological sequence of development as we learn and grow, but there is also great value in the surrounding layers of social discussion. There is value in understanding how other people read it, in sharing and collaborating to create meaning.
We learn from both: from taking the time to absorb and reflect on collected works and from discussions in the social space. If we fall too far in either direction, we become either too reflective and introspective, or too superficial in our outlook.
With music, there is a place for the album. Although people buy individual songs, an album allows you to vary the pace, to create highlights and slower sections, to tell a story, and it’s the same with a book. It can be retrospective, reflective and ambitious. The format of the book creates space for epic thoughts and complex stories. Social learning spaces are more immediate, better adapted to conversation and reflective musing than consumption of complex stories. Together, the formats complement each other.
Just as we surround formal learning with collaborative social spaces, so too we now tend to surround books with their own discussion space: Twitter feeds, websites, blogs. It’s an extension of what we understand a book to be. It helps keep the meaning more contemporary and to extend the experience beyond the formal part that lies between the covers.
For me, at any rate, there is still value and beauty in a book. My shelves will remain full for some time to come. But the experience that surrounds them helps them to be more relevant and immediate. Our relationship is evolving.