One of the oldest things I own is a book. It is a printed copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost from 1678. 333 years old! Older even than this country. It was printed only 11 years after Milton first published it. It’s still in good condition too. Printed in London in 1678 and somehow, by miracle, on my shelf in Washington DC after all these years. I often pick it up with reverence and read passages, wondering how many other eyes, eyes of men and women long gone, have passed over the very same text, it lighting up their mind as it does mine now. How many hands held it? On what shelves did it rest? Did George Washington or Ben Franklin ever hold it? Who is to say?
Ah yes, the book. A wonderful thing. Yet some are predicting the death of the book as we know it. Recently an article appeared on this topic at the Los Angeles Review of Books, by Ben Ehrenreich. Just a brief excerpt here:
Last I checked, Googling “death of the book” produced 11.8 million matches. The day before it was 11.6 million. It’s getting unseemly. Books were once such handsome things. Suddenly they seem clunky, heavy, almost fleshy in their gross materiality…..
Last summer Amazon announced that it was selling more e-books than the paper kind. The time to fret had passed. It was Kindle vs. kindling. MIT Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte—whose name is frequently preceded by the word “futurist”—declared that the demise of the paper book should be written in the present tense. ”It’s happening,” Negroponte said, and gave the pulpy artifacts just five years to utterly expire.
All of our words for book refer, at root, to forms no longer recognizable as such: biblos being the Greek word for the pith of the papyrus stalk (on which texts in the Greco-Roman world were inscribed); libri being Latin for the inner bark of a tree, just as the Old English bóc and Old Norse bók referred to the beech tree. Likewise “tome” is from a Greek word for a cutting (of papyrus) and “volume” is from the Latin for a rolled-up thing—a scroll, which is the form most texts took until they were replaced by folded parchment codices. … The printed, paper book, as we know it, dates only to the mid-fifteenth century, but those early Gutenberg exemplars were hardly something you’d curl up with on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The book as an affordable object of mass production—as something directly kin to the books that line our shelves—was not born until the 19th century, just in time for the early announcements of its death. 
But I refuse to accept the predicted death of the Book. I like my Kindle, and there are some things I prefer to read in that format. I can also travel lighter. But in the end it doesn’t beat the book for quick sequential access and beauty. I don’t care what they say, moving back and forth through a text quickly just isn’t that simple on an electronic reader. Lots of clunky keystrokes and guesswork is still required. True, one can search the text and copy and paste text with ease, but quickly flipping through an electronic book is not an easy thing.
Books are also in their special glory when it comes to combining art and illustrations with text. I just bought Dennis McNarama’s Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy and the splendidly illustrated and colorful book just doesn’t work on a Kindle or other portable reader. You just have to get the hard copy, it’s magnificent in the way it brings art and word together. Yes, the trusty book, and I love being able to dog-ear a page!
Yes, I think books will be with us for a while yet, but more an more they will need to do what books do best: present not only word, but picture, illustration, and quick access to the text.
So, I like books!
But, paradoxically, when it comes to books in the liturgy, I say, “Away with them!“ Clearly the clergy need the sacramentary and the lectors, the lectionary. Musicians too most often need some printed reference materials. But in the end, the faithful, if you ask me, should strive to worship without books, other than a hymnal. The liturgy is meant to be seen and heard. Some claim they cannot follow without the books and “worship-aids.” But I suspect the problem, then, is poorly presented liturgy, poorly trained lectors and clergy, if you will. The goal is to go “hands-free”and to allow the liturgy to unfold. Incessant references to texts and the “order of service” steal away some of the mystery, and cause us to look down at texts, rather than up and outward at the liturgy before us.
I once had a Protestant visitor who expressed concern that we did not announce chapter and verse when we proclaimed the Scripture. For her, the Bible was the physical book she carried. I explained that the Catholic tradition stretched back long before books were affordable and literacy was presupposed. In the Catholic Tradition the Word of God is what is proclaimed, more than what is printed. Even today, in many parts of the Catholic world, literacy is low. So the Church proclaims God’s Word, in the Liturgy, but also in the stone carvings, stained glass, music and the art of the Church. The Word is proclaimed and heard more than being thought of as a printed page. Yes, the liturgy is older than newsprint missalettes and widespread literacy.
Protestantism, on the the other hand emerged at the time just after the invention of the printing press and grew up with the rise of literacy in the West. The Bible, as a printed book, thus came to the fore and their liturgy turned more from a sacrifice to a kind of Bible Study. Chapter and verse (a Catholic invention, by the way) became more central when the Book is the main point. Now, I love Bible Study and the Protestant tradition has made quite an art of the preached word. This is commendable and worth imitating, but the often single focus on the printed book can short-change worship and certainly sacrifice.
Liturgically the Word is to be proclaimed, explicated and celebrated largely as a listening event. Then, the Word must become Flesh in the Eucharist. And as Christ, our Word, becomes flesh for us. And as we receive that flesh, He becomes one with us, and enables us to live his Word. All of this is so much more than a printed page or a physical book. The proclaimed Word is experienced and transforms us and we receive its power not only through the spoken Word but also the Sacrament of the Word made flesh.
I realize that, whenever I suggest going largely “book-less” in the Mass I often get push-back. I understand the controversy I create, and also the laments over poor acoustics, lectors and clergy. But what do you think of the goal? Books are wonderful things, but I wonder if the pew is the place for them? As we go to the new translation, some cards and printed material may need to make a brief reappearance. But in the end, a good listening ear, hearts open to obedience, and eyes in search of glory (rather than the right page) are the greatest “worship aids.”
How say you?
Here’s an old classic video on the invention of the book.