Thought Catalog
April 28, 2014

What Exactly Is A Book Today?

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I was recently reminded of my visceral connection to books by a conversation with a friend. Ed, who works in TV, is a Manhattanite like me, and was talking about having to visit his late father’s home on Long Island on one of his weekends off, a journey by public transportation that in the snow, rain, and wind biting winter cold can be what we in the City call a “schlep.” He was going out there to deal with some 3,000-odd books his father had collected over the years. “He was a voracious reader,” said Ed. “I have to figure out what to do with all these books, some of which are quite unusual, like an autographed 1938 travel guide written by Eugene Fodor.”

After a few moments of conversation I confessed to Ed that my knee jerk reaction on hearing of this unexpected treasure trove was to catch a ride with him and spend the weekend browsing the bookshelves cherry picking titles I would take home. Of course, I’m not going to do that even if I could because it’s impractical, I just don’t have the room in my apartment. But it reminded me that when I find myself surrounded by towering stacks of books I somehow feel at peace in a way that others talk about why they go to church. But I wonder if my eleven-year old son, who is a reader and professes seriously to want to become a writer, will ever feel or think about books the way I do.

Publishing, in its broadest sense, includes newspapers and magazines as well as books as we commonly understand them, and it breaks down into two groups: disposable reading, like newspapers or mass-market paperbacks that you give away or throw away once you’ve consumed them; and material you’d like to keep on your bookshelves (real or virtual) and revisit from time to time. And there’s the rub: real or virtual.

What’s Best, Real or Virtual?

It’s a confusing time for those of us who read and write for a living, and it’s not just about digital books versus print books.

Recently, a friend arrived back from the London book fair having had conversations with publishing people from all over the world, saying that ebooks outside of the U.S. are getting off to a very slow start. While publishing industry professionals may want manuscripts submitted to them electronically, the truth is the vast majority of readers want a physical paper artifact to buy, hold and read from. Europeans and many Asians just don’t, yet, have the fascination with all things digital when it comes to reading that seem to preoccupy Americans these days.

Contrary to popular belief, reading isn’t a “passive” act, but a dynamic one involving the reader’s active engagement in the experience. But that engagement is changing, or evolving (take your pick). Consider, for example, a viral YouTube video in 2011, “A Magazine Is an iPad that Doesn’t Work“ showing a one-year old girl giggle and poke an iPad, and then try to do the same thing to a printed magazine with increasing frustration.

The girl’s father concludes in a printed caption that, “For my daughter, a magazine is an iPad that does not work. It will remain so for her whole life. Steve Jobs has coded a part of her OS.” He goes on, “The video shows how magazines are now useless and impossible to understand, for digital natives . . . medium is message.”

There is a naiveté here (let’s be kind) that displays an assumption the child will never learn to enjoy and appreciate the printed book as she gets older, which I seriously take issue with. It doesn’t take into consideration, for example, that babies like to touch, bite, and taste anything and everything. And if it moves, it delights them, and the ones that can talk say, “Again.”


But it does play into a discussion that is driving the publishing industry as it undergoes a paradigm shift that is clearly comparable to the Guttenberg revolution in the 1450s, and decisions are being made as to how our reading matter is going to be presented to us that are much more than just cosmetic, whether it be on printed pages (books), or eInk pages (dedicated digital books), or backlit images of pages perhaps with added sound and images (books as apps).

The video also points out something else about printed books and how we learn to read at an early age. That is, to develop a book habit you need as a child to actively engage on a regular basis with printed books with another human being (ideally a parent), in order to get the most out of the reading experience later in life.

A disdain for books of any sort, rather than a passion for them, is arguably the greatest divide between the classes in the U.S., at the moment, particularly the working class, and the greatest hindrance to upward mobility. The experience of learning to appreciate and enjoy the printed book early on is somewhat akin to how each of us learns what our idiosyncratic “comfort foods” are. The ebook, in the broadest sense, then becomes a kind of shorthand reminder of that experience. And to maintain the societal value of books, we have to make readers out of too many stressed parents who were not encouraged to read as children and forced to read the wrong books at school. We have to convince them to not take the seductively “easy” way out by giving young kids in particular electronic toys that don’t engage all the senses rather than physical ones that will. They justify to themselves a lack of engagement with the children as a necessary modern lifestyle choice, rather than a convenient nanny, albeit an addictive one. In short, you can tut-tut or applaud the one-year-old and the iPad, or sit her on your knee and read an engaging book with her nightly as well.

In 2001, several years before Sony released their eReader, Marc Prensky coined the term digital native in a seminal essay, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants“ (from On the Horizon, MCB University Press). Very crudely, a digital native is anyone born during or after 2000. A digital immigrant is someone born prior to that date, though the definitions, like the terms themselves, are fluid. Dividing people into digital natives and digital immigrants is controversial. Some digital immigrants (such as Steve Jobs, for example) surpass digital natives in tech savvy, but the idea that early exposure to technology fundamentally changes the way people learn is clearly beginning to impact how we pass along knowledge to others, the next generation in particular. And books are an indispensable part of that process. Using one kind of technology (and the printed book is a beautiful example of a continuing unmatched technological efficiency and design grace) does not preclude understanding and using others forms. But the cliché, to the man with a hammer everything looks like nail, aptly describes the swirling discussion about what kind of book form, electronic or printed, is best?

Dividing Our Attention

Ferris Jabr, in an April, 2013 article in Scientific American,The Reading Brain in the Digital Age“ puts the question this way:

“As digital texts and technologies become more prevalent, we gain new and more mobile ways of reading—but are we still reading as attentively and thoroughly? How do our brains respond differently to onscreen text than to words on paper? Should we be worried about dividing our attention between pixels and ink or is the validity of such concerns paper-thin?”

If we lose the printed book, as some argue is inevitable, we don’t just lose an antiquated form of the book, we stand to make the whole experience of reading superficial. And that threatens a lot more than an entertainment delivery system. It impacts how we pass along knowledge and complex ideas that can’t always be readily reduced to images, in a society that is coming to revere the visual over the abstract intellectual power of words. We’re close to OD’ing on emotion, often confusing melodrama with relevance.

Friends and acquaintances enamored with the idea of the new inevitably replacing the old because it will innately improve their lives, prosthelytize that we are becoming a “visually dominated” society and printed books are going the way of Victorian buggy whips. But the story of reading and writing is a relatively new one, dating back only 5,000 or so years. In terms of human history this is almost yesterday morning. Curiously, some of the earliest forms of writing, such as Sumerian cuneiform and Chinese hanzi (and Japanese kanji) involved characters that began as pictures and took on a more profound meaning than just representation the more they were used. So as far as the impact of the visual is concerned what’s new is really old, it turns out.

Another curious fact is that the term we use for navigating digital texts is called scrolling, a direct reference to linear reading that forces the reader to start from the beginning and move in a straight line to the end (such as reading the Jewish Torah). The invention of the printed book by Guttenberg in 1454 was not just a revolution of industrialization over artisanship, but of how we read and learn. The printed book became an example of non-linear reading (you can jump almost instantly from page 8 to page 273) that spurred an explosion of learning and creativity that in turn profoundly shaped the development of civilization for the next 600 or so years.

As we look forward, the idea of what a book is will likely also be informed by a growing body of scientific evidence that points to the conclusion that, for many people if not all, while ebooks are wonderful tools in certain circumstances, digital forms of text greatly hinder most people taking in long texts in an intuitive way, because they are being forced to engage in linear reading (scrolls), rather than non-linear reading (print book). Screens appear to demand more of our mental resources while we read, so those who use ebook for text books, for example, have a harder time remembering what they’ve read, and need to revisit the same text more times than those who read the same passages on printed pages. The book, in other words, needs physicality to it, a sensuality the virtual can only remind us of but not fully give us, that is as important to our educational and spiritual well-being as the need for a real spousal partner, compared to the more unsatisfying relationship you can have with an online, emotional “safe” partner you can turn off whenever you want.

Jabr sums this up in his Scientific American article this way: “As an analogy, imagine if Google Maps allowed people to navigate street by individual street, as well as to teleport to any specific address, but prevented them from zooming out to see a neighborhood, state or country. Although ereaders like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad recreate pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers, and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: It is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks, and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.

“The implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realized,” says Abigail Sellen of Microsoft Research Cambridge in England and coauthor of The Myth of the Paperless Office. “Only when you get an ebook do you start to miss it. I don’t think ebook manufacturers have thought enough about how you might visualize where you are in a book.”

So, in the end, I think the discussions about what makes a book becomes deceptively empty. Neither ebooks nor print books are going away any time soon, and for good reason both have strengths and weaknesses that complement the other. The danger is in taking a position that says only one form is valid and the other doomed. There’s room for all in our homes, it seems, as long as you use them sensibly. TC mark