“Abolishing the Book Is Like Abolishing the Symphony”

The Yale computer science expert believes books “are among the most beautiful things we have.” To replace them all with digital texts would be a serious blow to learning.
  • Transcript


Question: Why have you claimed that students should be taught largely from books and not computers?

David Gelernter: There are certain subjects which seem to me can be taught very effectively online, although they aren’t. I would love to see writing taught online because at university like Yale, much less at a high school like where my boys went to school; public high school in New Haven, Connecticut, there are not enough teachers who are able to teach writing well, or in some cases, there are none. Well, there are always a few. Teaching somebody to write is a labor-intensive activity. I have to go through somebody’s paper and mark it up as a copy editor would do, sentence-by-sentence. And I have to do that repeatedly. Now, I could have a student take the paper and send it to somebody in Alaska, or India, or anywhere who is capable of doing it; a world wide network of writing teaching would be very effective. It doesn’t exist. We don’t have the right software tools; we will have at some point. Similarly for marking exercises, quantitative exercises, maybe not so much in mathematics, but certainly problem sets in physics, chemistry, and engineering and things like that where answers and methods are clear cut, absolutely. I would like to see that done online.

I think the universities as we know them will be dead in 10 or 15 years. I’d like to see them replaced by something better, instead of something worse, and it’s not clear which way it will go. But the book is – abolishing the book is like abolishing the symphony, or sonata form, or the sonnet, or the wall painting. The book is a form in which some of the greatest masterpieces that mankind has ever achieved are expressed; not only fiction, but the great biographies, biographists, the great historians. There are great science books that were conceived as books. Feynman’s famous introductory lectures in physics, which have a beginning and an end, which are written with style ****, the book is a unit and is such a brilliant ergonomic unit. I take a book and I can judge a book by its cover. I can glance at it from the outside and know what it is. I can tell if it’s a novel, or a text book, or a history book. I can look at the side and tell about how long it is. I can flip through it and I don’t need a map to know where the table of contents are, the index is. I can find a photograph, if there is a section of photographs. I can write on it, which is tremendously important. If I read a book, the value to it to me in having the book another time is to remember what I said, what I wanted to know, and so forth. It’s portable. I don’t have to worry about stepping on it accidentally, or I can use it on the beach. I can use it anywhere; standing up in a bus. It is the greatest design in the history of ergonomics; I wrote a piece on it a long time ago. We still have books because they are so brilliantly suited to the way human beings absorb information and at their best, they are among the most beautiful things we have.

It’s terrible to think they’re disappearing, surviving only in libraries, but that’s not going to happen. People are too smart to allow it, even if the industry sometimes seems so oblivious that it wouldn’t care.