B is for Book

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

We all knew I was going here, right? Let’s do a couple of lists this week.

  • 3 reasons books are great for religious learning.
  • 3 reasons they’re not so great.
  • 3 ways they’re more complicated than you might think.

I note: these are not meant to be complete lists. Just a dip in the water of some things to think about.

3 reasons books are great for religious learning:

1) Books give you space to explore a subject.

Blog posts, posts on an online forum, email messages – they might be 200 words, 500 words. Even if you’re me, with my issues with conciseness, they’re probably only 1500 words or so. [1]  Books give you a great deal more space (somewhere between 65,000 words and 100,000 words for a typical book-length work these days.)

2) Books are linear

There are some subjects this is really good for. If you want to walk someone through something that has a defined sequence (or can have a defined sequence), books can do that “Learn this thing, now learn this thing” very nicely.

3) Books are established.

We’re pretty sure how to use books. And lots of ways we might use them. That means that it’s easier for us to talk about whether they’re good or not, and what they’re good for, than some other sources. And we have lots of tools to help us manage them, and find information in them, and talk about them to other people.

3 reasons they are not so good: 

1) That thing about the number of words? Those take a while to write.

First, writing all those words down takes a while – how long depends on that individual author, and that moment in their life, and that particular book (and sometimes, that particular chapter), but in general, for a full-length book, you’re probably looking at a year or so, at least. And then after that, there’s a whole long publication process where there’s editing, and designing the book, and then getting it printed, and publicised and getting shipped to stores, before people can buy it or read it. And all of that takes a while.

2) Conversation continues and grows over time. 

Books, these days, lag at least a year (and more commonly two or three or five) behind broader conversations on exactly the same topics in the community that take place through other formats. There’s a reason for that. (Well, more than one.)

The book that always makes me think of this is Phyllis Currott’s Witchcrafting, in which, among other things, she gives some approaches to the Rede and other ethical concepts that were not terribly widely under discussion in print sources around the time she started writing.

When the book came out, I saw a really interesting combination of responses to it, though. People who’d been active in various online conversations in the intervening time – where there’d been several rounds of that topic that had gone across *many* online sources (various fora, email lists, blogs, etc.) – sort of looked at it and went “Yeah? We talked about that eighteen months ago”

The people I knew who weren’t very active online, however, looked at it and went “Wow! Great new thing. Awesome that someone is talking about this!” (and they’re right: it was a fairly new thing in print in the ways she was poking at the topic.)

Two very different reactions. Same book.

3) Books can make us think that words have all the answers

The biggest challenge with books is that they kick us into a very language-centred space. Not surprising, words being language. But that means that we may be very tied into a book’s idea of what is right or wrong or can be demonstrated. We may have a harder time engaging other kinds of interactions with the world – whether that’s sounds or colours or sensations or emotions, or what we learn by being in the same room as a ritual circle, or what it feels like to make the ritual circle be.

So, sometimes it’s good to get out of the book and do something.

3 ways they’re complicated

1) What gets published.

If you’ve paid any attention at all to anything about the publishing industry in the last two years, you are probably confused. That’s actually all I want you to know for this part. The publishing industry is changing rapidly, a bunch of assumptions that used to be pretty much safe aren’t, and a lot of people aren’t sure what to do about that.

The reality is that publishers publish the books they think will let them do more of the same. Which means, if a publisher is going to stay in business, they need to publish stuff that sells enough to make their costs and then some. (Or they will stop having a business.)

Self-publishing can work very well for niche titles, in particular. But it, in and of itself, is not terribly simple either: to make it work, you need to manage to write a readable book (not as simple as many people assume!), arrange all the bits into formats that work for a range of readers (also not simple, especially if you have images or specific layout needs).

And then you need to convince other people that it’s a thing they want to spend their money on. In some cases, this is easy. In cases where there’s a strong niche, and you’re filling an obvious need? Great. For things that can be priced low enough lots of people will take a chance on it maybe being okay? Great (once you figure out what that price is, which is also sorta complicated.)

And it takes a whole set of skills, separate from the skills needed to write the thing. And not everyone who can write a great book also has those skills.

2) Rapidly changing technology

Books, as I said, are awesome for long-form explanations of material. But there’s a bunch of topics where video or audio, or even hyper-text linked webpages or whatever are even better. And it can be hard to figure out which is which – or to figure out how to make the video or audio or linked text accessible to and findable by your audience.

Print text leaves out people with visual disabilities. Video and audio leaves out people with hearing loss or related disabilities. Online text presumes that someone’s got regular reliable Internet access (and I just had dinner with someone who doesn’t: she relies on the public library or the library I work at for her Internet, which is not that uncommon in my small town.)

And ebooks are part of that: they have different formatting expectations, different ways of handling footnotes and references, different ways they’re used. (Searchability, for example, changes some things.) And again, not simple.

3) Books have a certain static thing going.

And in some ways, that’s reassuring. But in other ways, they’re very much like a bug caught in amber, or a fossil footprint. They’re a memory of one fleeting moment in time, in the history of all the conversations ever, that’s been put down into a fixed form.

We need those fixed forms, because they help us figure out where we came from, and what mattered, and why we thought it was useful. But we also need to remember that we’re not sharing a planet with the dinosaurs: that the world changes, in all sorts of unexpected and unpredictable ways.

That’s why librarians talk about things like ‘currency’ (aka: “when was this thing written?”) when we talk about evaluating a work. Because we care about what was, but we also care about when it was, so we can figure out what other pieces we might want to check into, what might be more recent, what parts of the puzzle we’re not seeing yet.

Books aren’t bad.

(Let me tell you: I moved enough books from Minnesota to Maine to be sure of that!)

But they’re not things to put on pedestals, either. Use them as the tools they are, the doorways they are, the opportunities they are. But don’t mistake the books for the world.

[1] I am, yes, the sort of person who these days can turn out 2000 words of text in an evening, and forget that most people don’t do that.

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