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Do Books Make Us Human?

Do Books Make Us Human?

“Books are really part of what makes us human.” So asserts Rosemary Agoglia, curator of education at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, in a New York Times article about efforts to teach children the merits and pleasures of the “pre-web page,” of books. In New York City, the Morgan Book Project seeks to “instill in children of the digital age an appreciation for books by providing authentic materials to write, illustrate and construct their own medieval and Renaissance-inspired illuminated manuscripts.”

The Morgan Library and Museum developed the free program for children in grades 3 through 7 in collaboration with the NYC Department of Education. The museum houses a rich collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts written in gorgeous flowing scripts side-by-side with multicolored, detailed illustrations, as well as a priceless collection of printed books including Gutenberg Bibles (and some of which can be viewed online).

Students who participate in the Morgan Book Project make their own illuminated manuscripts, even mixing the pigments using 16th century techniques. Cochineal — dried insects — makes red dye; malachite (a green mineral), spinach, fish glue, gum arabic, saffron threads and 22-karat gold are also used.

The result is that students learn how books are made and, it is hoped, will acquire a deeper understanding of the marvels of physical books. A hand-made, hand-painted and written book like the ones the children in the Morgan program make is something that they can hold up and say is theirs only. Ida Owens, a teacher in the program, also emphasizes — to the surprise of children reared on tablets and computer screens – that medieval illuminated manuscripts, like web pages, combine text and images. The manuscripts are not paginated so students can “scroll and scroll” through them, just as do up and down a web page. Marie H. Trope-Podell, book project creator and manager of gallery programs at the Morgan, also notes that the program is “not a rebellion or reaction against the digital book — quite the opposite.”

Agoglia of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art also says she thinks that “digital and physical content delivery formats [will] co-exist for the next generation of readers.” But she does describe those aspects of physical books that cannot be recreated on an iPad, the tactile pleasures of turning pages, marking them, folding down corners, writing your name or gluing in a bookplate. Books, she says, are more than just the text on their pages:

“It is those dog-eared pages, coffee-stained covers or where you signed your name in the front when you were 4 years old. That memory is attributed to a physical object. Books are really part of what makes us human.”

As many times as I’ve heard people exclaim over the portability and convenience of a Kindle or iPad — and spoken in favor of the cheaper prices of e-books — I’ve heard someone speak up about a preference for curling up in a comfy chair with a book rather than a slab of metal, for knowing that you don’t need to recharge a book’s battery, for being able to look at 2, 3, more pages at once. I do like the idea of carrying around a library on an iPad or even on my phone while finding many merits to reading real books with real pages that “start up” when you open their covers.

On the other hand, my teenage autistic son, Charlie, reads only a few single words and does not show any interest in books. He loves music, which he listens to on his iPad: Thanks to him, I have a sense of what it may have been like to live in a culture in which poetry and song were orally transmitted and experienced, as in the times of Greeks in the 8th century BCE and earlier. It is only fairly recently in the history of the world that there have been efforts to teach so many to read and write and, before there were books, there were scrolls made from papyrus and clay and stone tablets. If books have something to do with making us human, they are only one thing that does.

Would it not be a happy irony for today’s children to learn a greater regard and liking for books because “the real thing” does so many things that an iPad cannot? Will iPads last as long as books have?

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Manuscript pages from the Hours of Catherine of Cleeves from the Morgan Library and Museum via Wikimedia Commons

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93 comments

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11:20AM PDT on Apr 12, 2012

I have loved books for as long as I have memory of self awareness, and my son already loves books. The type you can smell and hold and feel. I am not against digital books and in fact think that ANY way to make it convenient for people to read and self educate is a step forward. But I also don't think it should be seen as a replacement for books. I love my paper backs and my old friends beneath the covers of books I have had and loved and experienced over and over. Long live reading in whatever form it takes

7:17AM PDT on Mar 22, 2012

I can't / won't speak for others, but books, and the written & spoken word, definately define ME.

8:16PM PDT on Mar 20, 2012

AMEN! always love kristina chew's articles, maybe because i am a special educator who has worked with many, many autistic children who have taught me so much over the years!?

i am also a reading specialist who absolutely loves eric carle and believes that real books are the most exciting part of learning to read and of childhood experiences that we have to offer our young people. regardless of how a young person learns, a real written and illustrated eric carle, tommy depaola, ezra keats, eve bunting, etc. book is an experience to behold and ours to offer ALL of our children.
thanks for this article.

2:33PM PDT on Mar 19, 2012

Great article..respect our books..cherish them!

9:07AM PDT on Mar 19, 2012

While books do use paper, therefore trees and/or other resources, they don't have to be plugged in. No chance of a drained battery. Actually, that electricity is also coming from somewhere, coal, gas, nuclear?

8:52AM PDT on Mar 19, 2012

I agree with everything said in this article.

6:01AM PDT on Mar 19, 2012

Human beings are intelligent for inventing books, ipods too......
BUT nothing can replace a book!! : )

11:20PM PDT on Mar 18, 2012

Thank you for this interesting article. I found the Morgan Book Project to be very interesting and something I'd love to try. This project struck me more as an art project than a reading project which I do think those books were. Even creating the paper was part of the whole book making project. (I recall learning that books with the thicker paper that were not strictly aligned were the "real" books as opposed to the mass copied regular books.) Our books now are massed produced with paper all aligned. The manuscript itself simply needs to be in the proper format on the computer file and the printer can mass produce the books. The real creativity to produce a book has really been taken over with the new technology. I think it is great for kids to appreciate how books used to be made, but whether this helps kids reflect on importance of real books as we know them now is questionable.

8:31PM PDT on Mar 18, 2012

Patricia P. If you're going to revere the Bible, ought you not learn about it?? God is supposed to be a spiritual being. God the Father never wrote a thing. Neither do any of the 4 accounts of Christ's life from the New Testament tell us that Jesus (Son of God) wrote any part of the N.T. Now, the nature of the Holy Spirit by its name alone, tells us that he/it was not material and therefore could not write any part of the Bible. It was written (and invented!) by humans.

7:42PM PDT on Mar 18, 2012

Books are definetly one of the best things available to humans, that's for sure. As much as I love my Kindle, there is still nothing like curling up with a good book.

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