Paper or plastic? The book versus eBook conundrum
***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?