Musicologist Jan Swafford’s article “Why E-books Will Never Replace Real Books” at Slate makes a good case for why we’ll still want printed books in the age of the iPad and Kindle (not that I needed convincing). From the article:
So real books and e-books will coexist. That has happened time and again with other new technologies that were prophesied to kill off old ones. Autos didn’t wipe out horses. Movies didn’t finish theater. TV didn’t destroy movies. E-books won’t destroy paper and ink. The Internet and e-books may set back print media for a while, and they may claim a larger audience in the end. But a lot of people who care about reading will want the feel, the smell, the warmth, the deeper intellectual, emotional, and spiritual involvement of print.
From Paul Carr’s article in TechCrunch, “NSFW: I Admit It, The iPad Is A Kindle Killer. I Just Wish It Weren’t Going To Kill Reading Too”:
The iPad is emphatically not a serious readers’ device: the only people who would genuinely consider it a Kindle killer are those for whom the idea of reading for pleasure died years ago; if it was ever alive. The people who will spout bullshit like “I read on screen all day” when what they really mean is “I read the first three paragraphs of the New York Times article I saw linked on Twitter before retweeting it; and then I repeat that process for the next eight hours while pretending to work.” That’s reading in the way that rubbing against women on the subway is sex.
Read the whole thing.
Marvelous post from Jimmy Chen at HTMLGIANT.
In her article in yesterday’s New York Times, Patricia Cohen reports on Emory University’s efforts to preserve Salman Rushdie’s archive. In addition to the regular files, folders, books, and other paper materials one might expect, Rushdie gave Emory four Apple computers. The school decided to create an emulator that would allow visitors to see–and play with–Rushdie’s work:
At the Emory exhibition, visitors can log onto a computer and see the screen that Mr. Rushdie saw, search his file folders as he did, and find out what applications he used. (Mac Stickies were a favorite.) They can call up an early draft of Mr. Rushdie’s 1999 novel, “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” and edit a sentence or post an editorial comment.
Pretty neat. I love the idea of interaction and it’s great how technology has allowed for wider audiences to access archival materials. I’ve really been enjoying looking over the David Foster Wallace archive at the Harry Ransom Center, for instance, something made entirely possible through digital archiving. But Cohen’s article also details some of the problems and limitations of the “digital-born” material:
Electronically produced drafts, correspondence and editorial comments, sweated over by contemporary poets, novelists and nonfiction authors, are ultimately just a series of digits — 0’s and 1’s — written on floppy disks, CDs and hard drives, all of which degrade much faster than old-fashioned acid-free paper. Even if those storage media do survive, the relentless march of technology can mean that the older equipment and software that can make sense of all those 0’s and 1’s simply don’t exist anymore.
This got me thinking, again, about all the rosy-toned optimism surrounding e-readers like the Kindle and iPad. Marginalia, annotation, and scholia, whether from the quills of medieval monks, enlightenment scientists, or prickly book reviewers, has long served as a conduit of information and criticism often rivaling the importance of the document being marked. Kindle users can highlight, dog-ear, and annotate their e-texts now, but how permanent are these marginalia–especially when Amazon has already shown how easily the books can be removed from their owners (along with those owners’ notes!)? Given Apple’s penchant for DRM, it’s likely that you won’t be able to trust the iPad to secure your annotations either. And while my own paltry scribblings in the volumes I own are hardly on par with Coleridge’s annotations, the books that I have most heavily annotated are also those dearest to me. At best, my marginalia might call attention to some notable aspect of a great text; at least, they record something about the person I was when I saw fit to write in the book at that moment.
In his recent essay, “Books in the Age of the iPad,” Craig Mod distinguishes between “Formless” and “Definite” content:
Formless Content is is unaware of the container. Definite Content embraces the container as a canvas. Formless content is usually only text. Definite content usually has some visual elements along with text. Much of what we consume happens to be Formless. The bulk of printed matter — novels and non-fiction — is Formless.
Mod argues that the rise of e-readers like the Kindle and (presumably) the iPad are harbingers of a new age in reading, where both formless and, now, definite content might be readily (and easily) displayed. He makes a brash judgment:
The convenience of digital text — on demand, lightweight (in file size and physicality), searchable — already far trumps that of traditional printed matter.
Really? On demand? For whom? “On demand” here presupposes a number of conditions, first and foremost, that each person who wishes to enjoy this new medium has the economic means to do so. The projected retail cost of the iPad is currently $500, a price that does not include monthly ISP fees, let alone the prices of e-books and other e-texts. The Kindle retails now for about half the price of the iPad. Although these prices will certainly fall over time, it is difficult to imagine that the “convenience of digital text” will trump equitable access to “traditional printed matter” — particularly for families with multiple children (at least any time soon).
Mod makes some good points about the future of printed, physical books in the age of e-readers (or, the iPad, a device he seems to think will normalize the medium):
I propose the following to be considered whenever we think of printing a book:
- The Books We Make embrace their physicality — working in concert with the content to illuminate the narrative.
- The Books We Make are confident in form and usage of material.
- The Books We Make exploit the advantages of print.
- The Books We Make are built to last.
The result of this is:
- The Books We Make will feel whole and solid in the hands.
- The Books We Make will smell like now forgotten, far away libraries.
- The Books We Make will be something of which even our children — who have fully embraced all things digital — will understand the worth.
- The Books We Make will always remind people that the printed book can be a sculpture for thoughts and ideas.
Anything less than this will be stepped over and promptly forgotten in the digital march forward.
Goodbye disposable books.
Hello new canvases.
Books as aesthetic, durable objects — great idea. But books as relics, as things to recall the smell of “now forgotten, far away libraries”? Really? Libraries function as an important space in communities that transcend the mediums of information in those libraries. It’s almost downright scary to posit some kind of project-utopia where a library becomes “digitized.” Also — and again, much of what Mod suggests here is great — but also, who are “our children” who “have fully embraced all things digital”? In the current geopolitical climate, Mod’s line of thinking can only realistically apply to “First World” countries. Even in our own beloved United States, first among the “First World,” we have difficulty feeding all of our children or funding their educations. E-readers like the iPad or Kindle could presumably do much to ameliorate the burgeoning education gap, but recent efforts haven’t gained much momentum or praise.
It’s not that I disagree with (what I perceive to be) Mod’s overall thesis — that the iPad and successive e-readers will revolutionize how we read, access, and store information. I do, however, think that his rosy-toned enthusiasm has led to a number of blind spots in his article. Why should e-readers eliminate libraries? What, exactly, are “disposable books”? Who will have access to these “new canvases,” and in what capacity? Why the implicit presumption that digital storage of media is fail safe, easier than current methods, and more permanent?
Finally, my biggest problem with the piece is the simple assumption that any e-reader could be more comfortable than a paperback book. Mod addresses arguments like mine:
When people lament the loss of the printed book, this — comfort — is usually what they’re talking about. My eyes tire more easily, they say. The batteries run out, the screen is tough to read in sunlight. It doesn’t like bath tubs.
Mod responds to these arguments:
Important to note is that these aren’t complaints about the text losing meaning. Books don’t become harder to understand, or confusing just because they’re digital. It’s mainly issues concerning quality. One inevitable property of the quality argument is that technology is closing the gap (through advancements in screens and batteries) and because of additional features (note taking, bookmarking, searching), will inevitably surpass the comfort level of reading on paper.
While Mod’s point of meaning vs. quality (what I’d refer to as readability) is certainly right, his assumption that technology “will inevitably surpass the comfort level of reading on paper” is wholly unfounded and unsupported. It’s exactly the kind of teleological claim we see too often about technology — that technology always progresses to an inevitable, good, and superior end point. Still, Apple can feel free to send me an iPad and I’ll be sure to test my own assumptions on the issue, and redress them here if need be.