Emory Report

Mar. 22, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 24

First person:

'You can't take a laptop in the tub' and other wisdom

Two weeks after I began the task of launching The Academic Exchange, a publication for Emory faculty that debuted in early March, I was invited to talk about the project with a campus group of 10 lively, opinionated minds.

I trotted through my spiel about the Exchange, flourished my list of topics, talked about editorial approach and tone and welcomed suggestions. But the first suggestion caught me completely off-guard: Forget the print publication; why not do the whole thing on the web--an Emory e-zine?

What? Do away with print? Precipitate the downfall of civilization? Whoa, girl, I told myself. Be diplomatic. Be cool, articulate and professional. I looked my challenger in the eye and glibly described an ideal universe where The Academic Exchange would exist in two forms: a carefully considered and edited print version, and a more immediate test kitchen for half-baked ideas in the online version. Anxious moment over; time to move on to other topics . . . OK?

But this spirited bunch wouldn't let it go. "Print is passé!" declared one person. "It's cumbersome, and it doesn't have a search engine!"

"But I can't really read on a computer screen," protested another. "And there are so many texts that aren't online yet."

"Print is costly and wasteful," answered a third. "It's practically an anachronism."

The debate persisted with no sign of resolution. My stomach knotted up. What I had I started? Worse, I felt myself dragged into the spirit of the exchange, silently rooting for print, picturing the fiery Armageddon that would befall us once Dickens and Toni Morrison and Yeats could only be read on computer monitors. Finally, I couldn't hold back. "But you can't take a laptop in the bathtub," I blurted.

Silence. Everyone stared at me as though a frog had just leaped out of my mouth. I knew what they were thinking: Let's not go there. Indeed, the subject changed abruptly to more congenial business.

But the debate--not to mention my embarrassment over that ribbeting outburst--lingered in my thoughts. And the more I consider it, the more I am convinced of my own words. Print culture is not facing its own demise, because a book can do things that a computer, no matter how charged the battery or compact the design, will never be able to do.

I am an abusive reader. I dog-ear pages, bend spines to the cracking point (that's the only way you can comfortably hold a book in one hand and stir a pot of soup with the other), drip pulpy bits of orange across the text as I read, and scribble ad infinitum in the margins. Consumer Reports may have yet to do the testing, but I can't imagine a laptop computer surviving any of these treatments--not to mention the obligatory slip and plop into the soup pot.

The creases, stains, rents and scrawls I leave on my books create a kind of text of their own. When I see the black smudge over the lines, "The Soul selects her own Society--/Then--shuts the Door--," in a volume of Emily Dickinson's poetry given to me when I was a teenager, I recall my family's two-week vacation to Yellowstone National Park the summer before my 16th birthday. The fact that I had to go anywhere at all with my parents at that age was humiliating, and that they would drag me on this stupid camping trip was injustice itself. The trip reached its nadir for two unbelievable days when my 12-year-old brother, who had contracted some kind of insidious intestinal parasite from drinking river water, rendered our cab-over camper unlivable with his ailment. Hunkered in misery by the campfire with a film of soot coating my skin, I escaped my angst in Dickinson's precise, explosive language--and discovered in it the practical magic of em dashes.

Books can go nimbly where a computer, I believe, would stumble: a primitive campsite in the Wyoming wilderness, where power sources for battery recharging are nonexistent; the compost pile in my vegetable garden, where I half-submerge my gardening books as I dig and hoe; and my bathtub. What greater luxury than to dim the overhead lights, put a match to a dozen candles and soak in fragrant, warm water while losing yourself in Middlemarch? What more shocking a scenario than replacing that paperback with the hypertext version of George Eliot's masterpiece?

Don't mistake me for a technophobe. I was sincere in saying The Academic Exchange will engage both the print and digital media. In my perfect world, the two will play with one another and coexist in harmony, as they have begun to do in Woodruff Library's marvelous new Center for Library and Information Resources. Words in print have an inescapable solidity. But words on screen have a way of instantly appearing and just as suddenly disappearing. It's a vital, buzzing, constantly shifting medium-and one that would be unbearable without something stable and permanent by its side.

In November Allison Adams was named editor of The Academic Exchange, a faculty publication that premiered this month. The second issue, the last before the end of the school year, will appear in late April. The Exchange is on the web at <www.emory.edu/ACAD_EXCHANGE>.

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