Among the “non-essentials” upon which I spend my earnings, books hold the top spot, if not in value, certainly in quantity. Reading is more than a pass-time—it is perhaps the most basic aspect of who I am. I love books. While reading a New Jersey Star-Ledger piece by Allan Hoffman entitled “Learning by the book,” however, an uncomfortable truth dawned on me. Hoffman gently laments that the search for information has gone almost wholly electronic. As a person who currently works in the book industry, I know he’s right. More than that, I know it from my own life. I can’t remember the last time I opened a phone book, other than to retrieve a pressed leaf I’d inserted between its pages for pressing. If some bit of information about a religion or a biblical passage escapes my distracted brain, a few keystrokes work better than shuffling to the shelf, pulling off the reference books, and thumbing through until I find the datum. No, we are all addicted to speed.
Despite the best effort of Google books, much material necessary for research in many subjects remains sequestered in actual books. The problem is, for contemporary knowledge, book production is slow. In my editorial work, and as an erstwhile author, I know that the five years I spend researching and writing a book, the submission time to a publisher, the eventual decision, and then the year or longer production time, all equate to immediate obsolescence. Any non-fiction book is outdated by the internet even before it is shipped from the warehouse. New truths are born at the speed of light while books take years to make. I agree, Mr. Hoffman, we’ve lost something in our idolatry of the instant knowledge. If you need urgent info (What do I do about a snake bite? Where is the nearest Starbucks?) the internet is your up-to-date databank.
I have long known that the study of religions is often the study of texts (most of which are online now). Believing some ancients knew more about the ultimate realities of life than we do, either by dint of divinity or enlightenment, we search the texts about them or by them in hopes of joining them in a knowledge beyond knowing. Now in the age of the internet, new messiahs arise almost daily, proclaiming their truths across the world-wide web of wisdom. I have a feeling there is a dissertation or two in there. Of course, it will take a few years before you’ll see them in print.