E-reading the Bible

Earlier this month, Slate published an excerpt from Andrew Piper’s new book, Book Was There, with this provocative subtitle: “E-reading isn’t reading.” Piper argues that reading on an e-reader is so fundamentally different from reading a codex (the term for a book in its printed and bound form) that it does not qualify as reading in the same way.

Anybody who’s owned or even looked at an e-reader could list for you some important differences in the experience, some of which Piper highlights. It’s lighter and thinner than most hardcovers. You cannot flip through an e-book like you do a printed book. You don’t perceive your progress through the text with the physical sensation of flipping pages, with weight moving from the right to the left.

Piper takes this argument further, however. He believes that the codex itself is a fundamental aspect of much that we appreciate about modern society, including Christianity. He uses St. Augustine’s account of his own conversion, through reading a Bible in codex, as a primary example. He writes, “In aligning the practice of book reading with that of personal conversion, Augustine established a paradigm of reading that would far exceed its theological framework, one that would go on to become a foundation of Western humanistic learning for the next 1,500 years.”

I recently argued to the students in my Mass Media and Society class along similar lines, that without mass-printed bibles, the Protestant idea of “priesthood of all believers” was not possible. It relies on the reality of broad literacy and available Bibles so that all Christians could read them on their own. With that example in mind, I agree that Christianity as we know it today was shaped by the peculiar characteristics of reading books.

I’m more hesitant to agree, though, that by transitioning to other forms of reading all we experience is loss, and that this loss is somehow fundamental to culture or to our faith. I think if we tie our understanding of faith too closely to a particular mediated experience of it, we limit God. People of God were faithful before any of the Bible was written down. The early church thrived and began our tradition before the codex was invented. Surely Christianity can survive new forms, just as it survived and thrived with the media changes at Augustine’s time and at Martin Luther’s.

Perhaps the new question, then, should be this: how might interacting with the Bible in electronic form accent our faith in a new way? What might be the dangers and what might be the new blessings? For example, I wonder if a small screen and a “verse of the day” format might enhance the already prevalent tendency to read one verse outside of its context. On the other hand, the ease of cross-referencing might expand our sense of Biblical context, and help us make connections between testaments.

What do you think? Do you read your Bible and other books on an e-reader? How does it change your experience? What temptations should Christians who study the Bible electronically look out for? What temptations does a codex Bible hold that an electronic Bible might not?

Comments (10)

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A similar question might include the experience of listening (reading?) to the Bible via recorded format. How many of us encounter texts via books-on-tape or CD? Are there perceptible differences in how the word is taken in?

I am a librarian and life-long reader. I read in both print and e-formats, but I have to admit that I am becoming partial to e-books. I think that this is because I spend so much time in front of computers that it has just become the medium of habit and, thus, comfort. I probably read about 20% of what I read in print.

I recently had the e-books vs. print discussion with someone and my point was that, for me, it is the intellectual content of the material, rather than the format, that makes an impact on me.

That said, I probably read my print Bible in print more that on my e-reader because I like to be able to make notes in the margin and look back at what I’ve written over time.

Pro: I like e-readers because they weigh less and are therefore more portable. More powerful-readers can run Bible study software so cross references, commentaries, context references etc for a passage are easily accessed and read with the passage. I get so much more out of study using electronic readers.
Con: Binding, font, size, paper choice all make a book seem unique. The feel of the book and turning pages feels more organic to me. Underlines and notes jotted in the margin feel more personal than electronic methods of marking text.

I wonder if there were people long ago who mourned the passing of a scroll format or those who later griped that the printing press made reading feel less personal.

Personally I find it far more important that people are acquiring His teachings than where they are coming from.

My experience was that I seldom picked up the book and when I did found parts of what I read hard to understand. As a result I picked it up even less. A month or so ago I received a tablet and downloaded a bible app for it. I think I’ve read the bible far more in the last month than I have in the last 50+ years.

I’m not entirely sure what is meant by “What temptations should Christians who study the Bible electronically look out for” - It’s my experience that temptations are based far more on the individual than the environment that individual is in. To say there are more or less temptations in an electronic form is silly to say the least

One further comment on this: Is there a fundamental difference in understanding the 10 commandments if they are read from the stone tablet form as apposed to the reading of the same text from a codex?

I think there is certainly a difference in the experience of reading it. You don’t curl up for quiet personal devotions with stone tablets, for instance.

I find that when I listen to books (particularly books I am familiar with), I am often struck by the words of the text in new and meaningful ways. I read very fast, and if I have read the text before, even faster. When I am reading text, I often don’t slow down enough to actually encounter each word, each sentence. There are lines in books I have read 10 times that have only stood out to me when I listed to the audiobook.

I do use a Kindle and read Christian books on it. It is more convenient when on a journey or on holiday, i.e. a number of books under one roof. It is not as good as a physical book. When it comes to reading the Bible it is very slow to use, e.g. finding a place, chasing up margin cross-references. An e-reader is thus not a good tool for Bible study.
One benefit for those who write is that highlighted text on one’s reader is higlighted automatically on the copy on one’s computer, allowing for easy cut and paste into a piece of work.
One disadvantage is that all higlighting, bookmarking etc. is stored by Amazon, i.e. they know what you are actually reading and consider important.

Thanks for the link! Jacobs has influenced my thinking a lot on this topic, but I hadn’t read that piece.

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