So Many Books, So Little Time

All indications are that this Xmas past was a bumper season for eBooks. Among the stats being circulated are some just released saying that the Kindle version of books is now outselling paperbacks on Amazon.com. Needless to say, this has once again sent the radicals spilling out into the blogs, screaming revolutionary slogans, and proclaiming that the longstanding dictatorship of Gutenberg and his followers has come to an end.

As a longtime practicing digitarian, I both understand and appreciate the convenience and enhanced functionality that eBooks potentially offer. Certainly numerous scenarios for the efficient application of content via eBooks come to mind, especially in technical or business environments. That’s not the point. What I can’t accept is the idea that the printed book should be rendered obsolete. At first I resisted my resistance, worried that I was just some dinosaur clinging to the operant conditioning of a lifetime, and probably guilty of a personal fetish for printed books. Ultimately, I have come to believe that there are many equally strong arguments in support of the classical paper-based codex format.

First of all, however, I think we need to take environmental arguments off the table. The notion that eBooks are inherently more ecologically friendly than books printed on paper is not, to my mind, a self-evident truth. A lot more research has to be done, but I’m going to call this one a wash for now. To hear eBook pundits tell it, a piece of old-growth forest is raped every time a book is printed. In fact, the vast majority of publishers have been using recycled paper stock for decades. Then there’s the argument about the C02 emissions and fossil fuel usage that can be attributed to the trucking of all those books to and from bricks-and-mortar stores. There’s validity to that, of course, but it has to be placed in the context of the similar impact to the environment caused by the manufacture, packaging, transport, and operation of electronic devices. And, when their respective useful lives expire (which, for a printed book, is a lot longer than that of an eReader) discarded hardware becomes problematic toxic waste, while the paper in books can be recycled.

The great advantage of eBooks is, of course, their portability. And, gosh, how can any serious reader not be thrilled at the prospect of having tens of thousands of books stored conveniently at their fingertips in their lightweight Kindle or iPad? Many of those books, especially the classics from centuries past, are available for free. Not surprisingly, it was frequent travelers who became the first early adopters, and vocal fans, of eReaders, simply on the basis of reducing the volume of luggage. (Well, there were also the consumers of romance literature, who quickly found eBooks made it easy to acquire and hide what can only be described as a guilt-tinged addiction).

The very space that eBooks save, however, is itself a loss. Printed books have a physical presence, especially when collected into a library, which somehow befits the ideas and effort it took to create them. From stately leather-bound hardcovers to impertinent, wildly-colored paperbacks, each book has a personality and its own gravitas. Many books are surrogates or totems for the authors themselves. Series or sets of books placed side by side, from Harry Potter to The Great Ideas, show correlation and evolution. A personal library collectively represents the individual, and you are able to get a glimpse into her/his nature from the books that have been collected and read. All that is lost when a book becomes nothing more than bits on a storage device. Just ask the interior designers who are filling custom high-end residences with bookshelves — albeit containing deluxe hand-bound volumes.

There are some that claim the ubiquity of eBooks is translating into increased literacy. Frankly, if it’s true, that one fact alone will shut me up on the subject once and for all and turn me into an eBook fanatic. Yet I’m skeptical, and there is some evidence that increased downloading is really nothing more than digital hoarding, and once the novelty wears off it has yet to translate into more sustained reading per person.  (I’m guilty of that myself, thanks to Project Gutenberg.)

The real problem, whatever the book’s format, is that you still have to find the time to actually read it. An “avid” reader purportedly gets through a book a week — that’s about 50 a year. At that rate it would take me 200 years to get through 10,000 free books. It’s not like I’m going to gain a huge amount of extra reading time by not having to go visit my local booksellers either, now that acquisition of an eBook is only a click away. By my reckoning that’s only going to save me a few hours a month at best, and a book can take up to a dozen hours to read.

Sigh. I suppose when that 20-hour work week that was promised to us at the start of the digital revolution finally comes to pass, we’ll have all the extra time we need. And, thanks to our e-readers, it’ll be so easy. On our way to our stress-free, highly-enjoyable jobs, we’ll just put our flying electric cars on autopilot, kick back, and enjoy.

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The Novel Will Never Die

The Novel Will Never DieI don’t know whether the “experts” foretelling the demise of the book sincerely believe what they’re saying, or merely enjoy the notoriety that comes from making bold and gloomy forecasts. What gets me is that they’re not just talking about the supplanting of the 400-year-old printed codex with eBooks on Kindles, iPads, Nooks, etc. (which the pundits say is merely the sort of bastardized first step that comes with any new watershed medium, as Saint Marshall of McLuhan preached). No, these seers are predicting that the traditional book – and even its acme, the novel – will disappear altogether, and be replaced by some sort of shared interactive multimedia game-like experience.

This debate has proven to be a good Rorschach Test for me personally, and after much self-analysis, I’ve come to believe the novel will, in fact, survive. This bias is not, by the way, because I’m some sort of digital Luddite. Quite the contrary. In addition to being a writer, I am a producer of interactive digital content. Over the past two decades I have shrugged off the transformation of other media, and have happily embraced and exploited the convenience and flexibility that their digital incarnations offered. But when it comes to novels I have a very different reaction. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I also write novels, and so am clearly biased. But long before I became a writer of stories I was a reader of stories, and it is from there that my fierce loyalty originates. There is simply nothing like a good book.

One of the important factors here is the underlying artistic nature of a medium. For example, progressing from LPs to MP3s hasn’t changed the crux of the listening experience for music. If I close my eyes and wallow in Beethoven or Hendrix, I’m still absorbing exactly what the artist wanted me to. Admittedly, the entire value chain and distribution mechanism between me and the composer has changed irrevocably, but it’s not the bits or wireless network that matter, but rather the music that feeds the sensory experience.

Computer games are admittedly a new and wildly popular art form, but just as live theatre (or novels, for that matter) didn’t disappear because of movies and television, so I don’t accept that the novel will be supplanted by some sort of interactive gaming experience or social collaboration. First of all, there’s more to a novel than the plot. It’s not just what is written, it’s how it’s written. The limitless flexibility of the language, and the author’s ability to manipulate the mind and the emotions of the reader, are unparalleled. The very fact that everything is not spoon fed to readers, and they must use their own imaginations, is the strength, not the weakness, of the novel.

Nor do I believe future readers will want to forgo all private experience in order to share every word with their Facebook friends, or that they will only want to partake of stories that they create or control themselves. We all have limits to our experience and inventiveness, and certainly, in my own case, I enjoy being turned over into the hands of a master storyteller to experience new eye-opening possibilities that I would never have conceived of.

There’s also the simple economy of writing a novel, which can be done by one individual (the editors, publishers, printers, and publicists required to then bring it to market notwithstanding).The idea that the novel’s successor will also require a phalanx of programmers, animators, designers, and actors to bring it to fruition seems, by definition, to be an intrinsic limitation. Still, unlike many of the aforementioned pundits, I’m willing to admit I have no special wisdom or a psychic ability to prognosticate. Fortunately, I have already amassed more books than I will be able to read in my lifetime and, for the foreseeable future anyway, more are on their way, so even if I’m wrong, I’ll at least be content.

Getting Hyper Over the Hyperlink

Do excessive hyperlinks invite lost users and disrespect readers?With so much information out there and so little time to absorb it, I generally do a fair bit of high-level skimming. The problem with that is that you sometimes miss details. Recently, I came across a campaign for “delinkification,” which protests the excessive use of hyperlinks embedded in writing, and it prompted a knee-jerk reaction from me.

How ironic, I shouted, that these pundits had posted a campaign against links on the web, which, let’s face it, has become the de facto platform for disseminating humanity’s information.If you look up in the address field of your browser, you will see the first two letters are “ht” and that, my friends, stands for hypertext. “What is hypertext?” you might ask. Well, it’s text that is linked, allowing you to branch off to related topics or media. From that simple little concept came the weird wired world that, love it or hate it, has totally revolutionized our lives.

Once I looked closer at what the delinkification folks were saying, though, I calmed down. I realized they weren’t condemning the concept of hyperlinks per se, just how they were being used willy nilly by the mainstream.  And, certainly, there’s a lot of truth to that.  Links don’t confuse people. People confuse people.

From the very beginning, developers who started implementing hypertext systems quickly realized the risk of their users getting “lost in hyperspace.” Each link is a potential interruption – an  invitation to let the mind wander off. When hypertext pioneer Vannevar Bush coined the concept of “trails of association,” which he believed mirrored the thought processes of the human mind, his target audience was educated researchers, not sightseeing cybertourists.

I used to lecture on hypertext, and here’s the cautionary example I gave. A student, let’s call her Alice, is reading Hamlet and she comes across the unfamiliar word “bodkin” and clicks on a glossary to get an explanation. It tells her that a bodkin is a type of dagger, commonly worn by men during the Elizabethan Age. Alice clicks through and finds out that the Black Death was a major peril that people faced. She follows a link to find out more about the Bubonic Plague and discovers it was spread not by rats, as originally thought, but by the fleas they carried. Intrigued, Alice explores fleas further, and reads how they have these big hairy legs, so she pulls up a close-up image. She was supposed to be reading Shakespeare, and instead Alice ends up counting the hairs on a flea’s legs.

It’s generally true that you want to keep your users, especially novice students, on the straight and narrow, and shouldn’t let them wander off the path. Give them a well-marked trail that’s hard to stray from, with lots of signposts, and with breadcrumbs to find their way back if they get lost. That’s just good information design. Unfortunately, many established design principles target the lowest common denominator, which drags everyone down to that level.

In the example above, the flea-infested world Alice stumbled into is a bad thing if you’re teaching English Lit. But what if she ended up becoming a future entomologist? I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in loving the free-form exploratory aspect of hyperlinks. I’ve stalked many a hard-to-find fact across multiple URLs, scanning and clicking through, or else have just happily just followed my world wide whimsy. In both cases I have been very grateful for the hyperlinks that people thoughtfully provided. When we say someone’s mind wanders, the connotation is typically negative. We certainly don’t want it from our surgeons or air traffic controllers. It’s not a bad thing for our thinkers and artists, though.

The promoters of delinkification say that sprinkling links in the middle of content impedes reading efficiency, and that’s probably statistically true, assuming you want a left-brain rather than a right-brain result. Some also say those links disrespect the reader, and there I take some issue. Personally, as a writer, I find it a tad arrogant to assume that whatever I’ve written is so brilliant, that readers should not be allowed to branch off at will – especially if I’ve given them an idea worth pursuing. If you love someone, let them go.

Half-Booked Thoughts on the Future of the Printed Word

For months I’ve been following, with rapt interest, the heated debate about eBooks, and what they portent for the 500-year-old medium of the printed book (a.k.a. pBook). I’d like to think it’s my journalism training (which taught me that the truth is in the middle), or perhaps I’m just a wishy-washy fence-sitter, but I have yet to make up my mind on where this is all heading.

I realize “I don’t know” isn’t very attention-grabbing, or authoritative as an editorial position. It doesn’t get you cited or re-tweeted. So be it. Maybe it’s my lifelong love of printed books that has me hedging my bets, but I’m just not ready yet to start yelling “the book is dead” as so many others are doing, even as I write. Of course, they will just say I’m a relic and as obtuse as the man with the dead parrot in the Monty Python skit, and the writing is already on the wall (even if it soon won’t be on the page). The next generation, I’m told, will not share my archaic conditioned response to the printed word, making it as good as gone by the time the day comes that the neighbors notice the odd smell and break in to pry the paperback from my cold, dead hands.

The latest uproar arose over the announcement from the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary that they will no longer be producing a printed edition of their product. The Twittersphere went manic with yet more funeral notices for the pBook triggered by this pronouncement. Look closer, though, and you’ll see that it’s only the full, unabridged 20-volume printed version that was actually marked for extinction (maybe). Other one-volume condensed printed versions will still be produced because that’s where the OED evidently makes the bulk of its revenue … not from the CD-ROMs or £234 per year online subscriptions.

So, waters muddied again, I ask myself once more whether printed books will soon disappear altogether, as so many other forms of media have in my working lifetime.  And, again, I can state, with unequivocal authority, that I don’t know. Yes, clearly we’re at a bookmarkable point in the evolution of eBooks (which have, by the way, been around for a while). The discount-priced Kindle and the oh-so-cool iPad are certainly catching on, and admittedly comprise a growing part of the book-reading universe. No doubt there will be plenty sold in the coming holiday season, again sending up a very vocal funeral dirge for the printed word.

And yet, printed books also continue to be cranked out in record amounts, and despite much-hyped news about changing softcopy-to-hardcopy sales ratios, eBooks still appear to hold less than 5% of the market – and that doesn’t include the unrecorded continuing re-sale of second-hand books (even if the local bookstores that offer them are decidedly on the decline.)

And so the debate rages on, with me sitting in the middle, almost wishing I could be convinced one way or another. People with eReaders are reading more books, goes one report. People with eReaders are hoarding books, but not necessarily reading them more, says another.  eReaders are more ecologically friendly, even after manufacturing, then those printed on the corpses of dead trees, claims one source. Printed books, especially those on recycled stock, are far less harmful to the environment than the plastic, toxin-filled electronic devices that end up festering in landfills, someone counters. Sigh.

So, eReader in one hand and trade paperback in the other, I return to my book-strewn studio to ponder and blog. I’m surrounded by reference texts I’ve diligently amassed over the years and now seldom use because the web is handier and more robust, and because a grassroots do-it-yourself encyclopedia has kicked Britannica’s butt. Still, if the power goes out, I’ll be able to read those relics (by candlelight) long after batteries die. And, if things go really bad, I’ll be able to burn them in the fireplace for warmth. Somehow I doubt a Kindle is any good as kindling.

The Bookworm Has Turned

According to an article in the New York Times, the advent of eBooks is helping to liberate bookworms from the stigma they’ve traditionally faced.  Apparently,  it used to be that when you saw someone sitting alone in the corner, reading a book, you subconsciously labeled him/her as a social misfit with no friends.  Now, according to the researchers, if you see a person alone reading on an iPad or Kindle, you assume s/he is online and simultaneously sharing each literary epiphany with a gaggle of Facebook friends.

Many of my favorite vacations have been taken with just me and a suitcase full of books, so I find it interesting that all those years people have apparently been looking down their noses at me, or feeling sorry for me. Poor outcast me, lazily swinging and reading alone in my hammock, or sitting at a table for one in a restaurant immersed in a page turner. Who knew?

Personally, I’ve always respected, or at least felt a kinship to those sitting alone and reading a book, and would surreptitiously try to get a measure of the person by glimpsing the cover of the book they were reading. But, there’s the rub of this whole eBook revolution. The bookworm’s status has just been raised not by what they’re reading, but by what they’re reading on. Show up at Starbucks with a shiny new iPad and all you have to do is sit there in a corner, soaking up the admiration of your fellows, and it doesn’t matter if you have porn, trash … or for that matter, nothing at all on the device. Holy McLuhan, Batman! The medium is kicking the the crap out of the message.