The Grumpy Old Catechist on E-Books

For all my love of technology, I’m still a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to e-books. I’m simply not convinced that the convenience of being able to carry around a library in your backpack offsets what I see as some very real and core problems with the technology.

As I’ve refined my thoughts on the subject I continue to have two problems with e-books: one philosophical, one technological.

My philosophical problem stems from the fact that, as highly editable constructs, e-books enable the kind of post-publication tinkering that now plagues movie-making. Imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien or Aldous Huxley had been able to go back and “re-edit” their greatest works (ala George Lucas and the Star Wars special editions) and instantly propagate those changes to every copy in the world.  Or imagine if others could make those changes on behalf of authors long dead, ala the colorization of black and white films that was popular not so long ago. That’s the type of skulduggery that electronic publishing makes possible.

Even more ominously, imagine if a special interest group or government action convinced a publisher to make edits to a text. It’s not too hard to imagine edits made to such traditionally controversial texts such as Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye. If all that is available are electronic texts, who will preserve the original words of the authors? Who will be able to oppose such censorship when it is built into the underlying technology itself?

(And if you think it isn’t possible, remember that Amazon was able to pull copies of  1984  from Kindles not so long ago; it’s a short step to selectively editing copies on the same devices.)

On the technological end, the science fiction nut in me just keeps picturing a post-apocalyptic world in which access to technology is limited and only those people in possession of real physical books will have access to the world’s knowledge. Good examples of what I’m talking about are A Canticle for Leibowitz, the underrated The Book of Eli, or the classic Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last”:

In a modern retelling, we can well imagine Burgess Meredith dropping his iPad and unable to access all the books he ever wanted to read.

Of course, part of me is playing the curmudgeon. Point in fact, I think e-books are well suited for students, for whom lugging around backpacks filled with heavy textbooks poses real logistical and, potentially, health problems. And I think e-books may be an ideal solution for smaller niche publications which are not economically feasible under a print economy. But even then I think a print-on-demand solution should be offered, so that a physical, non-editable copy can be kept for posterity. Print is not dead, no matter how much our technological overlords may wish it to be so, and physical books still represent a lasting way to preserve what we hope to pass on to future generations.

Five Books for 2012

As I have done the past two years, I’d like to offer five book selections that I read the previous year to “jump start” your reading pile! These books come with my highest recommendation. (Of course, I’ve also been told that I have strange tastes, so your mileage will vary!)

  • Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, by Fr. James Martin, SJ (2011) – I can’t imagine anyone else having written this book. Fr. Martin’s signature wit and gift for bringing spiritual topics to the masses makes this not only a delightful read but a probing search for joy in the faith.
  • Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet, edited by Brandon Vogt (2011) – As I wrote in my full review, I fully expect the next generation of Catholic media creators to cite this book as a powerful inspiration. The essays contained within highlight some of the best Catholic work being done on the web.
  • Practice Makes Catholic, by Joe Paprocki (2011) – Joe’s latest book outlines the Catholic faith through five principles:  sacramentality, community, justice and the dignity of human life, reverence for Tradition, and a disposition towards faith and hope. A great read for any Catholic looking to deepen their practice of the faith.
  • Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science, by David Lindley (2008) – I actually listened to the audio version of this book. It’s a fascinating exploration of the struggle to understand and accept the mathematics and implications of modern physics.
  • The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara (1987) – I first heard about this book when it was referenced as inspiration for the TV show Firefly. It is a fictionalized account of the Battle of Gettysburg, with intriguing portraits of the major figures involved in that pivotal moment in US history.

If you have any recommendations that you’ve read in the past year, share them in the comments!

Photo by Thomas Hawk / FlickrCC


Reading bad books

In a factory a man was selling many copies of a penny paper consisting entirely of attacks on God and religion. One Catholic boy, Dan, refused it. ‘Afraid to read the other side?’ sneered the seller. ‘I’d rather not swallow poison either into my stomach or my mind’ was the answer.

Jim, another Catholic boy, said: ‘Let’s have a penn’orth!’ Then during the dinner-hour, sitting around with some of his mates, he read bits out of the atheist paper with comments of his own, showing its arguments up and where its facts about the Church were all wrong.

‘Well, what about this?’ said one of the listeners, pointing to a bit about something some Pope had done hundreds of years ago. Jim read it.

‘Well, that’s a new one to me. But I bet you a packet of Woodbines I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.’

So in the evening he took the paper round to a Catholic friend who could always put him wise on such occasions.

Dan’s attitude and Jim’s were both good in their way, but Jim’s is evidently the best for those who can rise to it.

– Rev. F.H. Drinkwater, Catechism Stories Part III: The Commandments (1939)

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things…

Today is Catholic Media Promotion Day, a day when when Catholics list “their favorite 3 blogs, 3 podcasts, 3 other media, 3 random Catholic things online, and their own projects.” Here, in no particular order, are my favorite Catholic:

Blogs (Catechetical)

This is a hard category because there are so many great ones! Among the ones I rarely miss:

Blogs (Non-Catechetical)


This is another hard one for me, because I don’t listen to a lot of Catholic podcasts. This no doubt reflects a defect in my moral character. Lately I’ve been sampling


An exceedingly difficult category. I’ll limit myself here to popular books, rather than theological books or spiritual classics. (It should also go without saying that I’m not including the Bible here.)

Random Catholic Things Online

5 Books for the New Year

Last year I offered five books I had read in the previous year that I recommended for the new year. If doing this two years in a row makes it a blog tradition — well , so be it!

Here are five books that come with my highest recommendation:

  • Doers of the Word: Putting Your Faith Into Practice, by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan (2009) — In this wonderful little book Archbishop Dolan offers short reflections on Christ, the Church year, the saints, the Church, the Blessed Virgin, and other topics. His short, pithy stories are a great example of his ability to explain the faith clearly and concisely — an ability also reflected in his excellent blog.
  • The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter, by Jason Kersten (2010) — OK, this isn’t a Catholic book per se, but it is a fascinating (and true!) tale of a young man from a broken home who finds joy in becoming a craftsman of a dying art: counterfeiting money. In perfectly replicating the new $100 bill he reunites with his estranged father, with terrible consequences for both.
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew B. Crawford (2009) — Crawford offers a profound treatise on how the “useful arts” — work that requires real skill and practice to master — combines the best of both manual and intellectual engagement. This book has made   me want to learn some real manual skills, starting with some basic woodworking.
  • Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer, by Thomas Dubay, SM (2006) — This “required reading” for our Totus Tuus team last summer has helped me deepen my prayer life and better appreciate the deep wisdom of the Church’s spiritual traditions.
  • Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen (1992) — This book was recommended to me by a friend and colleague after he saw A Canticle for Leibowitz on last year’s list. Hansen’s portrayal of the disruption of a religious community’s orderly life by a young novice prone to trances and visions is haunting, gripping, and strangely moving.

What is Web 2.0? Webinar “ Footnotes and Further Reading

This afternoon I gave a short presentation to the board of the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership on Web 2.0. As promised to them, here are some links to additional resources and readings on the topics we discussed.



Web 2.0 Concepts

If you were part of the conversation, please leave a comment with your thoughts and reactions!


I mentioned a free co-op e-book during the Q&A. It’s titled What Matters Now and offers 70 big ideas from 70 big thinkers.

Five Reading Picks for the New Year

There has been much written in the past few years about the œdeath of the book.  Certainly with the advent of the Kindle and new ways of conveying writing online we are changing the way we read. But I think it’s premature to write the book’s obituary yet. Instead I think we’ll see a shift in the way books are published “ away from large publishing houses to smaller niches publishers. In addition, print-on-demand solutions will allow anyone to publish a book quickly and cheaply.

To ensure that the book has a few more years of life, I’d like to recommend the following books that I read in the past year:

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter J. Miller, Jr. (1960) “ This Hugo award-winning novel traces 1200 years in the life of a monastic order following a devastating nuclear war. The monks seek to preserve scientific and cultural knowledge against a world that has descended into barbarism.
  • Five Loaves and Two Fish, by Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (1997) “ Cardinal Van Thuan spent 13 years incarcerated by the Communist government of Vietnam before being exiled in 1991. This book is a series of reflections he prepared for the 1997 World Youth Day. It is a simple, profound and moving reflection on suffering and hope.
  • The Clown of God, by Tomie dePaola (1978) “ dePaola retells and lavishly illustrates the story of a poor beggar boy who finds joy and fame in his juggling “ and surprising blessings as well. Sure to delight old and young alike.
  • Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn (2006) “ This science fiction story follows a 14th century German priest as he seeks to communicate with “ and minister to “ a group of aliens who have crashed in the woods outside his tiny village. The priest must ask: œCan an extraterrestrial be a Christian?  and, œWhere is God when tragedy strikes? 
  • From Slave to Priest: A Biography of the Reverend Augustine Tolton, by Sister Caroline Hemesath (reprinted 2006) “ Sr. Hemesath presents the life of Fr. Tolton, the first African-American priest in the United States, in a series of fictionalized vignettes (a sort of œspeculative biography ) from his youth in Quincy to his ministry and untimely death in Chicago.