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Paper or plastic? The book versus eBook conundrum

August 21, 2010

***Dave has another one of his great think-pieces out, this time about the reader’s experience of a book printed on paper vs. one downloaded to a Kindle or some other reader.

4. A book is a single-tasking device.

I.e., it doesn’t tempt you with email or Twittering, it doesn’t browse the Internet.  It doesn’t act as an alarm clock or RSS reader.  Whether we’re talking an eReader that has some online abilities, or an iPad that’s a tablet computer that you can read on, electronic devices for reading are not, purely, about reading.

A book is a book.  It lets you read. That’s all it does, and that’s a feature, not a bug.

He explores the concept of book ownership, including the intellectual sense of having physical evidence (in the form of wear and tear) of having read the book and how many times.  He notes that you can loan a physical book, you can keep the book, and it’s a tactile experience. 

All valid, all true.  As actual bookstores begin to die (Barnes & Noble is up for sale, for example), we may find ourselves without anyplace to handle a book before buying it.  And it’s a pretty short couple of steps from there to rusty printing presses in abandoned buildings.

I am trying to get my library down from its one-time peak of several thousand books, to maybe just 500.  The nature of the books I plan to keep until they become somebody else’s problem when I die, can be used to discuss what should be plastic, and what belongs on permanent paper.

Books I’m getting rid of:

Books about software and computer hardware have very short lives anyway; they belong on some kind of reader.  The tactile experience isn’t all that important but searchability is, and I’d be gladly rid of the tonnage.  This is a depressingly large number of books in my house and I’ve been throwing as many of them out as I can without exceeding the weight limit on our garbage can.  Let’s face it: nobody wants my old copy of Windows 2000 System Administration or my 1109-page Using HTML 4 from QUE press, let alone Microsoft Guide to Managing Memory in DOS 5

Also goodbye to books that were sort-of-interesting but turned out to be utter bollicks: The Oxygen Revolution or that book about how the fillings in your teeth are killing you.  That’s also a depressingly large number of books.  Nobody can accuse me of not giving the woo a fair shot, but they’re goin’ in the can.

I’m also discarding deep, scholarly volumes from my college career, about church history, biblical commentaries, and ancient culture.  I’m unlikely to need them again and if I do, I’ll download something.

Goodbye to books on darkroom technology and chemistry – that’s a lot of volumes – with a specific exception to be noted below.

I threw out my Encyclopaedia Brittanica, a few volumes a week.  It was a 1976 edition, and it had been three years since the last time I looked up anything in it.  Not that I’ve stopped being an information junkie, but the computer is faster, lighter, and more portable.  The tactile experience of heavy Brittanica volumes on arthritic fingers just isn’t worth getting nostalgic over.

So what am I keeping?

Most of my science nonfiction, like Asimov and Dawkins and Sagan and Clarke and Dennett and Eisley and Cousteau and Carson and countless other authors on space, Earth, materials science, environmental science, epidemiology, human-caused disasters and related technology history, etc.  The tactile reading experience isn’t that great but I am likely to read the books again and there’s no hope of being able to download most of them.  So paper it is.

Science fiction too, at least by the holy trinity of Clarke, Asimov & Heinlein; and some anthologies. 

3 signed volumes by Edward Tufte.  My books by Ansel Adams – even the ones about technologies I no longer use.  Books on skepticism and the scientific method.  Sagan’s Varieties of Scientific Experience, and a lot of other philosophical/scientific books by him.  Graphic novels.  It will be a long time before that reading experience can be matched on a screen.

Some landmark books on education, like John Holt’s How Children Fail, Banesh Hoffman’s The Tyranny of Testing, Raymond Callahan’s Education and the Cult of Efficiency.  Dennet’s Mismeasure Of Man

Books I specifically plan to download:

Certainly any very heavy books, and this could modify the “keep” list.  Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, or Asimov’s Physics.  And books that I plan to read once, like Francis Wellman’s The Art of Cross-Examination.

Clearly, this could go on all night, and it’s time for bed.  It looks like reference materials and books on current technology can go “plastic”; I won’t be reading today’s software books in ten years.  Conversely, books that I’d read for intellectual pleasure or just entertainment, or which I might not be able to download, I’m keeping in paper form.  But some books will cross those lines.  In any case I’m discarding about twenty books a month these days.  It might taper off as the decisions get harder.

Most of the people I know are bibliophiles.  What will your future library look like?

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 22, 2010 at 00:38 | #1

    (Looks over his shoulder to see what other ***Dave might have posted a “great think-piece” …)

    I try to keep books in my library that:

    a. I want to read again. (I have not gotten to the “likely to” point as of yet. That will come.) There is nothing, per se, that keeps these from being electronic, except that I already have the print versions.

    b. Have some emotional significance to me. When I read it. How it impacted me. Who might have signed it. Who gave it to me. (That emotional attachment will likely be fickle in the future—there’s still a lot of textbooks I will NEVAH likely read again, no matter how much they influenced me once upon a time.) (That said, it’s the book itself that is meaningful in attachment, and unlikely to be changed to electronics.)

    c. Books I want others to read or to borrow. (Which, given current technologies, will not be likely to be made electronic.)

    I have this vague sense that some day, when I am retired and independently wealthy and have nothing else to do with my time, I will re-read a lot of what I own.  I also have a less-vague sense that vague sense is full of shit.

  2. Ray
    August 22, 2010 at 07:09 | #2

    My Asterix collection is definitely staying right on my shelves, where it has sat for several decades.

    Likewise my compact OED (though I rarely use it, it has some irresistible attraction, and besides, it has a really fine magnifying glass). Besides, this is the edition that a colleague was deeply involved with, having created for them a specialised lexical editor back in the late 70s as part of an IBM project in the UK.

    Every time I try to reduce my collection, though, I run right up against my emotions – after all, the books that one collected as a teenager are pretty much extensions of one’s body by now :-)

  3. Chas, PE SE
    August 22, 2010 at 08:40 | #3

    The reason I prefer paper books to E-readers is that you don’t have to put batteries into them.  Well, maybe if you have an attached LED booklight…
    Have you heard of the Five Books Problem?  Makes for a fun exercise.  I once attended a science fiction convention where they had a panel discussion on it—unfortunately, they changed it to a “five foot shelf”, then said that with modern (then) information storage technology, one could store ALL of human knowledge in five feet—which negated the problem.

    “When I was your age, computer games were called ‘books’”—the grandfather, Princess Bride

  4. August 22, 2010 at 09:16 | #4

    I have books going back 50+ years.
    I have some books 200+ years old.

    I am no longer able to read an 8 inch floppy (yes, they were really floppy back then) a mere 35-40 years old. And technology has sped up since then…

    I’ll keep my 7-8000 books thank you.

  5. Karen
    August 23, 2010 at 15:10 | #5

    I once gave away all my Dune books, and have, a decade later, had to buy new ones to reread the series.  Never again. 

    There’s something to the tactile feeling of a book that simply can’t be compensated for by plastic.

  6. Neil
    August 23, 2010 at 17:35 | #6

    Like ***Dave, a major part of my “keeper” librabry is made up of books that I want to share, or at least preserve for some part of posterity in case anyone’s interested. 

      For me, this also includes lots and lots of crap…but it’s interesting crap, at least to me.  I like to keep some very silly books, some woo, some fiction, some woo-ish “non-fiction”, some religious books, old poltical ruminations, etc. that will never do anyone much good, but that are still entertaining to read, or even just to document the fact that they were ever published.
    Examples: at least one copy each of various religious texts-a book of mormon, a copy of the Tao te ching, one KJV and one NAS bible, the upanishads & the bagavad gita, and a few evengelical books of various flavors-a christian one about near-death-experiences(I Saw Heaven!), a very silly hari krishna one about meditational traveling called “Easy Journey to Other Planets”.

      Other examples of curious items that I choose to preserve- an interesting picture book published by Price/Stern/Sloan (the guys behind Mad-Libs and Droodles) called “Decline and Fall.”  It’s a selection of quotes from Gibbon’s book, illustrated with pictures from 60’s era America.  A bit silly and cynical, really, but an interesting idea.  I recently scored a copy of “None Dare Call It Conspiracy” for $.25.  Without this wonderful book, I never would have known that I was a puppet and victim of an international socialist conspiracy!
    A short overview of erotic art through the ages called simply, “Erotic Art.”  A 1972 volume titled “The Conniseur’s Book of Marijuana, a well-researched but slightly pretentious book detailing marijuana and hashish use from pre-historical india and the middle east through to the modern age, with just a touch of psychedelic stylings. 

    I actually just finished re-reading a book called “Lucid Dreaming.”  A bit of pseudo-scientific speculation is involved, but it’s mostly about techniques for remaining lucid in dream states.  I also have two on astral projection which are of course, full of woo, but have valuable techniques that can also be used for lucid dreaming.  (no woo necessarily involved, I’ve been enjoying lucid dreams since childhood.  Until I get my jetpack, it’s the only time I can fly without buying a plane ticket.)

    Lots of poetry and plays, and a good collection of classic fiction and modern fiction.  I have nearly everything by John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, everything Tolkein wrote, a lot of John Updike…complete works of Shakespeare, Twain, Poe.  A couple novels by Joseph Conrad, most of Dickens’ works, a couple of Dosteyevsky’s books. I re-read several of these novels each year, particularly the Vonnegut.  I find that each of his novels, even the worst ones, contain more wisdom and practical philosophy than all the bibles and religious texts put together.
      A random selection of 20th century fiction bought at library book sales, a stack of paperbacks that are compilations of Mad Magazine articles and cartoons going back to the late 50’s.  My own stack of Mad Magazine, running from roughly 1983-1993.

      I moved around so much in my 20’s that I’ve already downsized from over 1000 books to maybe 200-300.  If anything, I want a bigger apartment so I can restock!

    I doubt my own experience translates very well to others, though.  I have very few textbooks or technical manuals, or how-to books of any real use.  The vast majority of my library has always been creative works, for entertainment or philosophical musing only.  I can’t stand most television, I don’t spend much time playing video games, and even my favorite movies only get watched once or twice a year.  Reading, whether fiction or non-fiction, has always been my favorite form of entertainment, so I will probably always have a few shelves and a few dusty crates of old gems(and old turds) lying around.

      Last things- a bit of personal perspective from a voracious reader/incurable packrat – just before re-reading Lucid Dreaming, I read a semi-biographical novel called “Dustship Glory.”  I’d had it for over ten years, and never got around to reading it.  It turned out to be a fairly compelling story about a man in dust-bowl Saskatchewan slowly going mad as he builds a steamship by hand in the middle of the plains, scaring and annoying his mostly virtuous yet self-righteous and meddlesome neighbors.  If I’d tossed it out, as I had so often considered doing over the years, I never would have had the pleasure of reading it and discovering yet another good writer.  Now I just need to get through the other two dozen or so I still haven’t read! 
      I also tried to read, for the third time, “Gulcher=PostRock Cultural Pluralism in America 1649-1983”, a terrible collection of nearly unreadable stream of conciousness style um…“essays”… by pop-culture writer/rock critic Richard Meltzer.  It’s an original 1st edition, 1972 printing, if anybody likes unreadable crap.  My favorite part is the price-the 1972 cover price was $3.95, printed on the book…then there is another sticker, still decades old, that reads Pic ‘N Save $.29.  It’s been so long I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty sure I got it from a used book shop or a remaindered bin for a quarter.  This time I got over halfway through before I couldn’t take his annoying coked-out “style” any more, and the only bits about cultural pluralism or monism so far were in the intro, written by someone else, who I am sure was reading way too much into Meltzer’s ramblings.  Oh well, it only cost a quarter…I’d say it was worth at least half of what I paid for it, even if its greatest use will be vintage rock n roll hamster bedding.

  7. August 23, 2010 at 18:25 | #7

    You’re throwing out an HTML 4 reference? I’m still using my HTML 3.2 quick reference guide. Well, it is the second edition

  8. August 23, 2010 at 23:08 | #8

    Whereas HTML and CSS are something I’m more than happy to look up online …

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