Books, Books, Books

By H. Boone Porter

It is hard to imagine Christianity without books. Active periods of Christian history have always been marked by the production of books. The modern era was ushered in when Johann Gutenberg first printed a book with moveable type, and original copies of the Bible he printed, which are the surviving monuments of his achievement, are among the most valuable artifacts in the world. Both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation were made possible by printed books. So to was what is sometimes called the Anglican Counter-Reformation— that great period of 17th century Anglicanism marked by the writings of John Donne, Lancelot Andrewes, John Cosin, Jeremy Taylor, Thomas Traherne, and others. In the 18th century, the great English publishing house, The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) was a major resource for Anglican expansion into America and other parts of the world. Again in the 19th century the Oxford Movement was marked by its successful effort to publish inexpensive translations of the writings of the ancient church Fathers. It is easy to prolong the list of important developments which were promulgated by books. 

In recent years, the well-known philosopher Marshall McLuhan has proclaimed the end of the “Gutenberg Era” — the period of history in which our outlook has been dominated by the word-by-word, line-by-line, page-by-page thinking presented in a book. In its place, he sees the dominance of electronic communications in which we hear by radio or tape, or hear and see by television, dramatic scenes which convey a powerful impact without any process of thought-by-thought sequential logical steps. If it really is the end of the Gutenberg Era, the proposed sale of the Gutenberg Bible by the General Theological Seminary has a symbolic significance greater, perhaps, than is intended by the trustees of the respected center of learning (see Dean Foster’s letter, page 4). 

On the other hand, revolutions have a way of turning back upon themselves, and perhaps this is true also of the revolution in communications. Today, many of us are so surrounded by electronically maintained noise that we consciously or unconsciously tune it out. TV screens have to become dramatically large or dramatically smaller in order to monopolize our attention. When one wishes to enjoy the use of the human mind, there is still nothing like sitting down quietly with a good book. We do not have to read it in any Gutenbergian straitjacket. We can pause, think, reflect, allow the stimulated imagination to wander. We need not be riveted precisely to what the author says; we may also ponder what he suggests, or leaves unsaid, or challenges us to say. 

Yet McLuhan has helped us see that there are indeed many ways of thinking, feeling, and taking in information. Many authors today recognize this, as of course did so many of the great writers of past centuries. A picture succinctly but tellingly described may be more powerful than any step-by-step logical argument. Appeals to our sense of color, touch, taste, and smell can be conveyed in words and may be important parts of a total literary experience. From the dawn of history, great books have been illustrated. One is thankful that American publishers are again discovering that children are not the only ones who benefit from the illustrator’s art. 

In short, we think books are highly important, and we hope that readers of THE LIVING CHURCH share our conviction. We hope too that they will be assisted by the information about books given in this issue, and in other issues of this magazine, in reviews, articles, and advertisements. 

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977-1990. This article was published in our November 13, 1977.


Online Archives