Saturday, May 23, 2009

Community and The Book

Dean Shareski’s post, How The Book Destroyed Community, embeds a video of Rory McGreal who posits that the book is the biggest destroyer of human community, especially learning commmunities. While I agree with Dean’s reflective stance on this matter and respect his discretion, I found McGreal’s cover hard to digest.

McGreal maintains that the book first caused people to learn without the aid of community - that when the book first came into its own as ‘the portable book’, people found they no longer needed community to help them learn about things - that they could easily pick up a book, and without the community, learn
all they needed to know on their own. He maintains that because of the book 'no community is necessary'.

Shred of truth

While there are some threads of truth in these ideas, McGreal delivers a sermon, not unlike that of a preacher who wishes to admonish the book with a controlled restraint on the fire and brimstone.
I wonder he's ever thought of how the book came to be published in the first place.

Is the arrival of a brand new book the effort of a single person working on his or her own, composing, writing, printing, bookbinding and distributing? Is it true that 'no community is necessary'?

William Blake would have come close to achieving this amazing feat. Blake was an engraver, artist, craftsman and poet who also published his own writing. But he was an exceptional person.

Books are rarely written, printed, bound and distributed by the authors, never mind the paper making, unless perhaps as a community activity in school where the book becomes an agent of learning in more ways than one.

A book of verse

In 1994, I published a collection of verse on a limited budget. The book displayed the publisher’s name, Linneth, a composite of my wife’s first name and mine. There was no way I could publish the book entirely on my own. I approached a printer in town, who made a living through the support of local communities. The printer employed some of these people, but did not own a paper factory. So paper had to be bought from a manufacturing company employing people from communities in another town.

Cover of a book of verseMy good friend, Kevin Meehan, who had a small part-time printing business supported by friends and acquaintances, helped me print the cover. A book-binding company in town assisted me to get the pages bound with the book-cover. This firm was also supported by communities as some of their members were employees.

These processes involved some industrial involvement, some cottage industry and some amateur effort. None of that industry could have existed on its own, and all of it contributed to community. The amateur practice was me, for I wrote the 72 pages of verse in the first place. I supplied the printer with a Word file of the text typed by me, saved on a floppy bought new from the local electronic store.

Much of the verse I wrote was about my family and of the communities around Wellington where they live. Without community, much of the writing in the book would never have happened, let alone have been published. As well, most of what I had learnt that took me out to these community industries came from books, including the phone numbers of key people involved.

Communities everywhere

This story of my little book of verse is not unique. But it gives small mention of the library communities within a country and throughout the world that are supported by the book.

I come from Dunfermline where I was raised as a child. It is also the birth-town of Andrew Carnegie who gave away most of his fortune to fund the establishment of many libraries, schools, and universities throughout the world. While Carnegie's money was for building libraries, he never paid for a single book. He believed that books should be provided by the communities through the work of local councils.

So I wonder how 'the portable book' could possibly be charged with the destruction of communities. It seems that it’s doing the exact opposite by supporting communities, allowing them to come together, and providing the basis for community activity and input as well as offering a reason for networking to grow and exist within these communities.

What I’ve described here are aspects to do with the book that not only foster community activity but also bring communities together in the same way the production of many other technological artefacts do. There are many other aspects to the book that contribute to communities and how they exist, function and grow. Just ask anyone from Fair Isle what contribution the book makes to that community today. It is hardly one that’s on a road to destruction caused by the book.

Biting the hand that fed

Sadly, McGreal’s approach is typical of a view shared by some people. In the long past history of the book, people with similar dispositions burned bibles, books and booklets by the billion. Not only do they eschew and denigrate the technology that brought them to where they are, they also wish to forget how it got there in the first place.

That they are so embittered about what the book did or did not give them is sad. Biting the hand that fed gets a little sympathy from me if only for their state of mind. I’m powerless to do anything about that.
Nor can I do much about their understanding of causality.

What I challenge, however, is the way that some of them seek to persuade others to share their same jejune and narrow point of view.

Haere rā – Farewell


bonnie K said...

Greetings Ken,
As usual, when I stop by, I am NEVER disappointed. You use your blog to share such interesting ideas. I am so blown away!
Once again it happened.
I am so glad you keep writing and posting. I can't wait to share your blog with our new Summer Institute. Feel free to stop by and join us as we get going in July.
I'm sending you a special invitation to join us as a guest blogger.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe e Bonnie!

I look forward to dropping in on your Summer Institute - you must let me know in June when you are about to launch. I'd feel privileged to be asked as a guest blogger! Been a host before, for Kevin's DIAS and enjoyed that heaps. Never been asked as a 'guest blogger'. That's a bit special!

Catchya later

Chris said...

Greetings from Oregon,

We've been enjoying your blog. Technology (scrolls, books, laptops, Internet) continues to reshape culture and how people accomplish community-related practices; so, I find it's always a challenge to take a really positive or negative view on this topic since each new technological innovation creates a "new normal" for different demographics, especially in our century. Even though I cannot imagine one arguing against the benefits of the book, I think setting up a polemic like McGreal does can sometimes be an interesting exercise as we try to think more critically about some of the aspects of technology that end up having adverse effects on certain types of individuals, age groups, communities or cultures--"not all things good are beneficial" the saying goes.

Great tie in w/the mention of how your "community-produced" book helped support your local community--enjoyed that story.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai Chris!

And thanks for pitching in with this one. For me, the difficulty is coping with extremes of opinion. It is a difficult issue when tacking into the wind for there is little or no margin for balance.

I think that this is an unfortunate, but nevertheless a very human position. Some say it makes for robust debate. I say it makes for a rocky journey when seeking balance.

But I'm also aware that not everyone wishes to reach the balance point and that's the pivotal human issue. When someone wants to rock the boat, the others just have to put up with the perturbation.

Catchya later