By Dr. Jim Ferguson
I was never bookish growing up. I did well enough in school to get by and mostly avoided parental punishment. Admittedly, my primary interests were sports and girls. My fifth grade teacher and I are church members, and she was once asked if she thought her former pupil would ever amount to anything. Never a chatty person, her taciturn response was a painfully honest, “No.” In her defense, I remember receiving fifteen black-marks in one day as a grading period began. Sixteen demerits would garner me an “F” in deportment which my father warned would cost me a family spring break trip in Florida. I kept my hands to myself, my mouth shut and made it to the beach.

Soon enough it became painfully clear there weren’t many 5’8” professional athletes, so I buckled down in college and used the gifts afforded me. And fortunately, the lovely Becky is able to see beyond the façade of my exterior which precluded a career in modeling.

Though I disagree with many aspects of modernity, I thank the Lord I live in what many call the Information Age. The Middle Ages were referred to as the Age of Faith or the Dark Ages, as labeled by Renaissance elitists (snobs). Similar sophisticates labeled the Enlightenment as the acme of the Age of Reason. We now describe the Industrial Age as one powered by machines. Maybe the moniker we moderns have given ourselves will stick. Perhaps it is a prescient label. Or is it hubris?

It’s hard for me to comprehend that slide rules are now obsolete. These tools, invented in the 1600s and integral to my education, were replaced in short order by hand calculators in the 1970s. Our Information Age is made possible by the Internet and computers, both invented in my lifetime, but not by Al Gore. The Dell Corporation first promoted the personal computer, but Apple made it truly personal with the first iPhone introduced in 2007. Now, I have available in my pocket the world’s library. Yes, the information can be politicized, like everything else. But with filtering by reason and observation, there is wonder. Some worry about computers and artificial intelligence as in the apocalyptic science fiction movie, Terminator. I ascribe to the superior science fiction of the polymath Isaac Asimov whose futuristic vision of robots (thinking machines), bound by the three laws of robotics (see my essay Bots in the Focus archives), seem far more plausible.

Though I love the computer in my pocket, I still love the feel of a book and the ability to jot down my thoughts in marginal notes. A possible exception is a big book which is hard to hold while lying in bed. I hate it when a big book hits you on the nose as you doze off. Becky borrows books from the library and reads them on her iPhone. However, experts caution against looking at computer screens late at night because the blue wavelengths of computer lighting can suppress pituitary melatonin release and promote insomnia. I encouraged her to buy inexpensive readers to use at night. These have lenses to block the blue wavelengths of light, allowing melatonin release and keep her from roaming the house at odd hours of the night and waking the dog!

I’m not an antiquarian, but I opine, “He who dies with the most books wins” – at least if you’ve read them. I am a bibliophile, a lover of books, and so was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson donated his huge library to the United States after the British burned the national library in the War of 1812. Jefferson’s collection became the nucleus of the Library of Congress. I love modern conveniences and technology, but I respect the wisdom of books, thoughts on paper bound together and shared. Books are real and don’t disappear when the computer is shut down.

The earliest known writing is not from Samaria, but from ancient Sumeria in Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers (Tigris and Euphrates). Cuneiform was made by pressing a delta shaped stylus into wet clay tablets. It looks somewhat like chicken tracks in the mud.

One of the earliest collection of writings which we now label as books was the Pentateuch, the first five “chapters” of our current day Bible. Hebrew scribes painstakingly wrote the ancient stories onto scrolls of animal hides, usually sheep, occasionally cows or deer, but never pigs who were considered “unclean.” The first five “books” on one scroll were called a Torah and was more than one hundred and fifty feet long! Any mistake, such as a letter touching another letter, would cause the entire panel of three, if not four, columns of text to be discarded along with the adjacent panel! When you hear that scripture is altered over time, consider the meticulous and reverential work of ancient scribes and compare their work with today’s media.

My daughters read books to my grandchildren every night. Studies have shown the benefits of reading to your children. I’m not aware of any similar research showing developmental benefits from an iPad or video game. You would think kids might have improved hand-eye coordination from gaming, but you’d have to balance benefit against violent images and non-reality situations. I grew up on Looney Tune cartoons and Captain Kangaroo. I turned out OK. By comparison, my two year old granddaughter “reads” “Moby Dick” and “Jane Eyre” for toddlers. I suspect she’ll do just fine, though she might lag in appreciation of classical music instilled in me by Merrie Melodies Cartoons and Heckle & Jeckle.

In antiquity few could read and communication was principally aural. With education and Gutenberg’s printing press and then cinema, communication became visual. Recently, I experienced VR (virtual reality) at a friend’s home. The experience was somewhat like the Regal Cinemas video enticing you to buy popcorn by taking you visually on a roller coaster.

I’m not a fuddy-duddy, but VR is not for me. Though I think the next leap of humans may be the virtual interface of machines and man, my reality is here and now with my Lord, my wife and my family. There’s plenty to occupy my mind and fill the library of a life.