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Alaskan Range: Diamond Sutra

"The e-book reading experience is better than online, but booklovers know the satisfaction of getting immersed in a good book, its heft, texture, and smell, the flow of text generating mental images superior to any video,'' declares Greg Hill.

“E-reader ownership doubles in six months,” proclaimed the headline to a recent Pew Research news release. However, careful readers note that the 100% jump was because e-book ownership among U.S. adults increased from 6% to 12%. Ownership of tablet computers like iPads and Xooms, by comparison, increased in that time period by only 3%. The on-going economic crisis may be dampening consumer purchasing of electronic devices, and print book publishing is still flourishing, but Pew’s articles and the ballyhoo surrounding e-books generally is causing consternation for many print-book lovers.

“Consternation” comes from the Latin stem word “consternare,” which meant “overcome, confuse, dismay, perplex, terrify, alarm.” Many librarians embrace the convenience of e-books; after all, reading’s reading, right? Maybe not. An article from 2008 titled “Not Quite Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use” found that “On the average, Web page users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.” Being connected to social media like FaceBook and Tweeter multiplies the stream of messages, notices, and interruptions that constantly bombard the technorati, the technologically proficient, and make sustained reading online difficult.

The e-book reading experience is better than online, but booklovers know the satisfaction of getting immersed in a good book, its heft, texture, and smell, the flow of text generating mental images superior to any video. The codex book, printed on paper and bound on one side, still appeals to many readers on multiple levels, from physical comfort to readability. But do print books surpass e-books in long-term functionality?

The NY Times James Gleick wrote a disparaging article this month about how “books and other fetish objects” will be replaced by a “New Renaissance”: digitalized versions of books stored in the Internet “cloud.” This “cloud” is actually scads of remote computer servers that individuals can access with laptops, smartphones, and tablets to send e-mail, make long distance phones call, use software, and store documents, photos, and files. All these activities require tremendous amounts of expensive Internet bandwidth, and that’s why broadband providers are pushing for authorization to mandate “data caps,” limits on how much data you can personally access.

The Internet’s ability to allow anyone to see rare old books online is marvelous, but it’s not like handling them. Take the Diamond Sutra. It’s a principal Buddhist text and the oldest existing book that’s complete and has a known publication date: “the 13th of the fourth moon of the ninth year of Xiantong,” or May 11, 868 CE (Common Era). The manuscript comes from the ruins of a Chinese Silk Road outpost called Dunhuang, a place also known as “the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas,” where generations of hermit monks lived.

In the early 1900s a Chinese Taoist monk named Wang Yuanlu rediscovered the ruins and thousands of ancient documents in the Dunhuang caves. News of his find reached Aurel Stein, a Hungarian archeologist working for the British, and he sweet-talked Wang into selling 40,000 priceless scrolls and paintings, including the Diamond Sutra, for less than 200 English pounds sterling. Stein was knighted for his efforts, but he remains the vilest of cultural pirates to the Chinese.

First translated from Sanskrit into Chinese around 400 CE, the “Diamond Cutter of Perfect Wisdom,” as the sutra’s more formally known, describes the Buddha’s attempt to help his followers “unlearn” their “preconceived, limited notions of the nature of reality.” This sutra’s one of the briefer ones. Seven carved wooden blocks were used to print a scroll seven long sheets of paper sixteen feet long. You can view a page at http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/sacredtexts/diamondsutra.html from the British Library, who still clings to the manuscript as the jewel of the Dunhuang hoard in their Stein Collection.

The online experience allows perusal and study, but it never approximates actually holding and touching. A lifetime of reading’s left me an unreformed book fetishist, but as much as books mean to me, they’re temporary, though not as much as cloud computing. As noted in the Diamond Sutra, which is all about the impermanence of the physical world, “All conditioned phenomena/ Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows;/ Like drops of dew, or flashes of lightning;/ Thusly should they be contemplated.”


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