Books are, and will be…September 23rd, 2009 by infomancy
This comes from an ongoing discussion on the AASLForum mailing list – e-mail thread from the archive.
Following up on David’s comments about refocusing attention on the larger supported concept of reading as opposed to the individual container of the printed book, it is interesting to place this conversation in the larger stream of writing going on in the technology world right now.
Writing on the O’Reilly Radar blog (Tim O’Reilly of the technology books with animals on the cover, not the other one), Mark Sigal tackled reading yesterday in a post titled “Rebooting the Book (One Apple iPad Tablet at a Time)“.
Mark is not a librarian, nor is he in any way associated with education. He is, as his bio notes, “an eight-time entrepreneur who has spent the past 21 years seeding new ventures in the digital media, social networking, software-as-a-service, mobile device and embedded systems spaces.” So, how does this layperson view reading?
Well, first let’s establish that he loves books: “the book is the best, most universal, vessel for an improved learning culture/experience.” Pretty unambiguous. And yet, this is an article about reinventing the “book” to create a more effective and efficient method of delivering the book via updated methods we can now use in place of the 2,000 year old printing technology that has served us well lo these many years.
To make his case, Sigal references another recent article from Open Book Toronto, “The Future of Publishing“. In this interview of Sean Cranbury, he has more love to share for books. “I like things that occupy space, that have a certain heft, that hurt when people hit me with them, and no one has ever hit me with a web page. At least not in the physical sense.” He goes on…
“Books can challenge us with their thingness. The design and dimension of a book; the quality of paper stock; the floppiness, the arch-ness; the full-colour fold-out poster; the analog bleeds of ink into the fibers of a page of sloppy/endearing drawings by Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions; the smell that they accumulate over time, especially when shelved in old bookstores owned by the wily and cantankerous — all of these things are irreplaceable. The web can imitate them, showcase them, allow us to edit, discuss and read their contents, or tell us about them in ludicrous detail from every point of view while linking the book across time and space to other destinations in other remote, insubstantial digital terrains.” [Cranbury]
The interviewer in this article, Hugh McGuire, shares Cranbury’s sentiments (and mine!):
“But as much as the sensual nature of books gives them great power, those things evoke sensory memories and they are secondary to — or the result of — having read and been moved by books in the past. I remember the smell of libraries because I was in libraries because of the writing in those books. The libraries, pages, print, typography all exist in order to allow me to get access to that writing. The sensual bits are all important, but they come second to the stuff that is in books.” [McGuire]
He sums this up in a statement mirroring what I have said in many blog posts, articles, impassioned conversations, and conference talks: “I love physical books because I love what is in them; I don’t love what is in books because of the physical objects.” [McGuire]
Without trying to put words in David’s mouth, I think that is what he was trying to point out in his earlier e-mail. David loves books, but he cannot easily access the printed vessel that libraries have endowed with this mystical fetishism. Is not the heart of a library the contents of the books and not the books themselves? While Cushing Academy might not have traveled the smoothest path in their transition to a digital collection, and while there is a risk of lost elements within the collection, is it not our duty to support their digital library in its fragile infancy when it’s need for help is the greatest?
In the larger world, or at least in the larger technology world of which we are becoming citizens whether or not we want to, the move towards digital publishing and digital books is pretty much being seen as inevitable. Print newspapers and magazines are on their death beds. Publishers, as seen in the Rebooting the Book article, are struggling with changes as well. This is not the death of books, newspapers, or magazines, however…just the death of the traditional printing model.
As McGuire notes in “The Future of Publishing”: “for all the talk about the death of books, could there ever have been a better time in the history of the universe to be a book lover? Just look at the wealth of information, writing, podcasts, resources of all kinds about books and writing available on the web now. There are fewer book review pages in newspapers, sure, but hundreds of booky bloggers writing about books, writing, literature, design, typography. I have 238 book blogs feeding into my Google Reader, there are about 500 posts a day, sometimes more, all about books. I could never read them all.” [McGuire]
Books will change, but they will survive. Albums did not disappear as vinyl records changed to plastic CDs and then to digital MP3s. Vinyl is going strong in niche stores, a smaller format for publishing, but one imbued with all the love and art that goes into a quality book today. Apple just released a new format for beautifully constructed digital albums in iTunes 9 launched earlier this month.
Libraries will survive. What is stored in our current printed books is too valuable to loose. And yet, we too must change. Cushing Academy took a brave step forward into the digital chaos that we are all facing. They should not be vilified, but rather honored. In truth, it is our fault that their steps included missteps. We were not there to lead them as we should have been. Where is the AASL Guidebook for the Digital Shift? Where is the AASL Handbook for Digital Reading? Where is the leadership?
If we are not willing to take on leadership in this critical issue, then shame on us for finger waggling after the fact.