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Vol. LXIV, No. 11
May 25, 2012

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Digital Versions Not the Equal
Primacy of the Book Touted by U Va.’s Suarez

On the front page...

Dr. Michael F. Suarez

Dr. Michael F. Suarez

No lover of books, words, literature and language ever preferred a PDF of Virgil’s The Aeneid to the well-worn volume that carried him, with a sort of totemic power, from AP high school English, then on—according to the press release that announced Dr. Michael F. Suarez’s appointment to the English department faculty at the University of Virginia in 2009—to two bachelor’s degrees (with majors in biology, English and sociology), four master’s degrees in English and theology and a Ph.D. in English literature from Oxford University.

But that’s only part of Suarez’s CV; he is also a Jesuit priest and director of the Rare Book School at U Va. It was with a kind of priestly devotion to original, not digital, texts that he discussed “The Future for Books in a Digital Age,” at NLM’s Lister Hill Auditorium on Apr. 19.

In a lively talk that made one wish to audit the freshman English class he teaches—The History of the Book: From Archimedes to the iPad—Suarez argued that “the digital domain is always a world not only of gain, but also of loss…we celebrate the gains, but often are not mindful of the losses.”


A book, he said, is a complex expression of culture. A digital book is not its equal: a mere sequence of images on a screen. Or as Suarez likes to say, “No materiality, no meaning.”

Suarez warned against a sort of “systemic falsification” that occurs when reproductions usurp the place of an original work, a kind of “new true” that is not true at all.

“The digital world is here to stay, and it changes the structure of learning…and that’s a good thing,” he said. “Digital is not the enemy. I don’t hate the Kindle; if it promotes reading it’s a good thing.” Robust digital content, he said, is allowing scholars to ask important new questions and get good, reliable answers. Suarez himself edits the Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, a massive compilation of literature that will range from the Dead Sea scrolls to contemporary works.

Dr. Michael F. Suarez Dr. Michael F. Suarez Dr. Michael F. Suarez Dr. Michael F. Suarez

Suarez, a dynamic speaker, eschewed the lectern microphone for a free-ranging presentation across the front of Lister Hill Auditorium.

Photos: Michael Spencer

“I am not here to deliver a Luddite rant against digital. If you were expecting that, go now. Run!”

Academia, he argues, “is well beyond the idea of either/or” with respect to digital information. “We need to live in a world of both/and.” His goal? “We need to be able to drive the tools we use, and not have the tools drive us.”

Or as he said later, “I use the digital domain every day—I couldn’t do my work without it—but I want to understand its influences.”

He asked the Lister Hill audience to consider several slides of a painting shown onscreen, Antoine-Jean Gros’ “Bonaparte Visits the Plague-stricken at Jaffa,” completed in 1799 and exhibited in 1804. Not one of the reproductions was exactly the same, nor did any of them convey the fact that the original, now in the Louvre, is some 16 feet tall by 21 feet wide, nor show the impasto painting technique employed by its maker. The digital domain introduces distortions, of which users are largely unaware. Asked Suarez, “What is the real thing, and how could you know?”

He noted that the invention of Kodachrome color slide film in 1936 “revolutionized the study of art history,” but also troubled the art world: What happens when a reproduction becomes the work of art, gaining primacy while the original is displaced? Suarez acknowledges that color slides introduced generations of students to a wider palette of art, but also charges that “it changes the way we see.” The loss of physical presence is not without cost.

He said he’s found hundreds of examples of mistakes and inconsistencies in artifacts vs. digital reproductions, and asks, “Is this trivial or substantial?”

Showing a faded page from the Internet Archive online reproduction of the antique Hereford Breviary, he declared, “This is what we got—and it’s broken. It ain’t a book. It’s a sequence of images on a screen. So I ask, is this pure gain or is there some attendant loss?”

“A digital book—is no book at all,” said Suarez.

“A digital book—is no book at all,” said Suarez.

Suarez wants to know how the “de-contextualization” that inevitably occurs during digital transformation affects human beings. He quoted an esteemed librarian at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, where many older volumes are hand-pressed: “Until you have held 5,000 [hand-pressed books] in your hands, you know nothing of real books.”

To Suarez, a digital book is a picture, part of “an infinitely shuffle-able deck of cards,” not a book. A book, he said, is a complex object, an interacting system of signs, an object whose physical attributes convey meaning. A book is a commodity imbued with social, bibliographic and linguistic codes, “a coalescence of human intention…Those of us who love books value their humanity, glory in their complexity. Books are profoundly humanistic.”

Digital simulacra, on the other hand, represent “a horizon of absences, impoverishment…you can’t read what isn’t there.” Digital books are “very necessary,” he allowed, “but not sufficient.”

In the realm of medical education, digital representations have their uses as educational tools, Suarez noted, but are no substitute for “reading the body.”

NLM is rightly proud of its “Turning the Pages” digital technology that allows perusal of Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica online. But TTP technology, says Suarez, in its attempt to suffice for the genuine, has a pernicious aspect.

“What price do we pay for the convenience?” he asked. “I’m grateful for the access, but what am I getting access to?”

He demonstrated the poverty of the keyword search as a tool of literary analysis; sure, it offers “velocity of access, which is the great desideratum of the digital world,” but it also adds to the mistaken notion that searching is somehow the equal of researching.

Suarez cited a Tufts University scholar who discovered that deep readers showed evidence of more connections in the brain while mere “decoders of information” demonstrated fewer connections.

Quoting poet T.S. Eliot, circa 1940, he said, “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Suarez sees in naive acceptance of digital books a “homogenization of human thought— and that can’t be good.” To read exclusively in the digital environment is to accept a surrogate, to tread in a world of dislocation where “the contiguous [represented by real books] is now sundered.”

Late in his talk, he briefly disclosed the intellectual theology underpinning his misgivings about the digital domain and its empty promise of easy riches: “You cannot love what you do not know. Love is always built on knowledge, and knowledge is always built on labor.”

He concluded on a conciliatory note: “The digital world is good, but it changes the way we see. How will it change the way succeeding generations see?...The digital world is here to stay, and I am delighted by its advent. But a digital book—is no book at all.”

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