Kindling the future

By Razib Khan | November 24, 2007 2:43 am

kindlephoto.jpgThe Future of Reading:

All these ideas are anathema to traditionalists. In May 2006, novelist John Updike, appalled at reading Kelly’s article (“a pretty grisly scenario”), decided to speak for them. Addressing a convention of booksellers, he cited “the printed, bound and paid-for book” as an ideal, and worried that book readers and writers were “approaching the condition of holdouts, surly hermits who refuse to come out and play in the electric sunshine of the post-Gutenberg village.” (Actually, studies show that heavy Internet users read many more books than do those not on the Net.) He declared that the “edges” of the traditional book should not be breached. In his view, the stiff boards that bound the pages were not just covers but ramparts, and like-minded people should “defend the fort.”

Jeremiads such as Updike’s are pretty amusing after you read a book like Ancient Literacy, which notes the suspicion that many traditionalists had toward literacy due to its presumed encouragement of intellectual laziness. And of course there have been presentation revolutions in the past, the introduction of the papyrus scroll and its eventual replacement by the codex. Perhaps those of who love books should remember that it’s the content which matters in the end. The onerous distribution restrictions upon that content are probably the main issues that many of us are going to have with the Kindle, not some mystical attachment to paper and ink.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
  • http://scienceblogs.com/laelaps Laelaps

    I prefer books over new technologies like Kindle because they’re actually a bit easier on the eyes; if I’m staring at a screen too long it gets too uncomfortable to continue. Plus, I like being able to stick my thumb in a page and flip back & forth or pull another book off the shelf and compare the two at the same time, so even though I think things like Kindle will eventually proliferate to a degree, I don’t see us getting rid of books anytime soon.

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com/blog writerdd

    The problem is that paper and ink are accessible by anyone, without any necessary technology, and the physical object is usable/readable forever. Digital media does not meet these criteria. In addition, if any serious disaster ever strikes this planet and we do not retain the ability to use various technologies, books would still be accessible for rebuilding civilization. I know that’s really a long shot, but these points seem to be much more important that personal preferences for one media over another.

  • http://manwhoisthursday.blogspot.com Thursday

    The codex was a great improvement on the scroll. For anything other than a short essay, there needs to be a way to flip through pages as pages. So long as e-book readers allow this I don’t see much of a problem. I don’t think they will ever completely replace print though.

  • http://wozniak.ca/ Geoff Wozniak

    I agree with Updike in the sense that physical books are wonderful items, but I see no reason why an electronic version cannot be as wonderful. That being said, electronic books as they exist now suck. I won’t be giving up on physical books for some time.

  • cc

    “Perhaps those of who love books should remember that it’s the content which matters in the end.”
    I would argue that presentation is also content, aesthetically speaking. And that the ideal presentation enhances the reading experience, which in turn enhances the text.
    And for me, it is more inviting to curl up with a book than with an electronic device. The texture of the pages are more pleasant, and I’d rather not read backlit pages for hours at a time.
    IMO, of course.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    So net users read more than non-net users — ok, but do net users read more or less than their counterparts from 50 or 100 or 200 years ago? That’s the important question.
    Net users waste unbelievable amounts of time on YouTube, Wikipedia, etc., which weren’t available back then. So, was there a Victorian version of YouTube, and did they waste as much time on it as we do on ours?

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    In addition, if any serious disaster ever strikes this planet and we do not retain the ability to use various technologies, books would still be accessible for rebuilding civilization.
    this is a good point. but, the base of books right now is so huge that i don’t think we have to worry for a long time.
    And for me, it is more inviting to curl up with a book than with an electronic device.
    there will be electronic forms which are really good at mimicking printed books soon. the kindle goes some of that direction.

  • Fly

    “I prefer books over new technologies like Kindle because they’re actually a bit easier on the eyes; if I’m staring at a screen too long it gets too uncomfortable to continue.”
    The display will eventually be better than print. For some types of print it already is. The display can also change or magnify the font for easier reading. Eventually the book would have a camera that tracked your eye movements so that it could tell when you were tired or when some text held special interest. It could keep an outline of important topics for later referral or sharing with friends.
    “I like being able to stick my thumb in a page and flip back & forth or pull another book off the shelf and compare the two at the same time,”
    Use a split-screen with a different page displayed in each panel. Or buy multiple displays that act as a virtual desktop, each displaying a different book, page, diagram, or web page but all controlled by a virtual desktop OS that knows what going on in all the displays.
    “The problem is that paper and ink are accessible by anyone…”
    The book is only accessible if you have it with you. I’ve thrown away all of my old math texts…got tired of hauling heavy boxes of books each time I moved. Even when you have the book it may be hard to find the info in the book that you want. And if you want to share the info it is hard to make it accessible to others.
    “books would still be accessible for rebuilding civilization”
    Like those that were in the Library of Alexandria when it burned? Old books rot, old pictures fade. Digital books are stored redundantly in several different formats and in many different locations. After super AI’s wipe out the human race, the digital information will live on.
    There is a downside. Garbage lives forever and pops up when least desired. My PhD thesis is now available online. I would have sworn that only my adviser would have access to that boring shit. The only copies were safely buried in my closet and the university library shelf.
    re: Reading habits
    In my youth I was a voracious reader…scifi, textbooks, science mags, news mags, newspapers, backs of cereal boxes. Lots of reading, most of it trash. Now I read at sites were the garbage has been filtered. Those sites lead to others. In the comments I can read dissenting views and follow links to related material. And there is Google search and Wikipedia. I read more now and the information quality is much higher.
    For the intellectually curious the online world is a vast improvement.

  • Zora

    I have a curious taste for Victorian triple-decker novels. Not just the classics, but the second and third-rate authors. The only way to get many of those books is as ebooks. There are many thousands of free ebooks available at manybooks.net, in multiple formats.
    Most of the books are from Project Gutenberg, which is in turn supplied by Distributed Proofreaders, where I volunteer. I’m one of the people turning out-of-print public domain texts into free books. DP has done more than 10,000 books.
    Imagine — a whole free library on your computer. The books don’t need to be dusted either, and they don’t weigh anything.

  • http://nouseforadave.wordpress.com Dave Semeniuk

    But my Folio Society books are so pretty.

  • dougjnn

    eBook readers yes. Amazon delivered eBooks yes. No additional cost Ev-DO wireless network delivery of eBooks (often overnight, e.g. in the case of mag and newspaper subscriptions), YES.
    Kindle no.
    It’s one of the ugliest, most ungainly looking consumer electronic gadgets I’ve seen in the last five years.
    It’s entirely too big. The thing should be almost entirely screen, and smaller. The size of a mass market or maybe in another version a trade paperback book, except as thin as possible. No keyboard. If you’re gonna have a keyboard, go with an ultralight PC instead.
    Actually the device I want is a bigger iPhone clone running Google phone (open platform) software (with easy access to gMail and google cloud computing for e.g. address book, calender and some lite word processing and spreadsheet work), that’s an ebook reader, iPod (like music and podcast device), and hotshot video playback device. No keyboard or anyway none bigger than a blackberry like one.
    I suspect that at least some versions of the gPhones which come out towards the end of 2008 will be like this.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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