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Tech Speak: Book vs. Swipe, A Tale of Print over Pixels

This past week I ran across an exemplary article by Brandon Keim over on wired.com titled: “Why the Smart Reading Device of the Future May Be… Paper.” Now some of you might be asking why is it that “I” think this article, in particular, is exemplary? And the simple answer is because it confirms pretty much all of my own strongly held biases when it comes the debate over swipe vs. flip and the overall utility of actual books (being of the ‘spine-bound’ and ‘paper-leafed’ variety) versus their (‘Eeeee-lect-ronic’ and ‘screen-bound’) tablet-touting counterparts. As when it comes right down to it —at least in my opinion— there’s something about a book, in its natural analog state (in all of its dog eared, ink smudged and sharped edged glory), that speaks to the human experience in a way that electronic books and digital imprints (at least in the way they are currently being realized) cannot.

But as with anything technology related that catches my interest, I am of course going to argue that Keim (like many others who seem to prefer living in the so called ‘real world’) is missing a big part of the picture. Books, as pieces of technology (and here I am defining technology more so from the sociological perspective in regards to the way(s) in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilization…), have a far reaching utility of their own. And the thing which we need to ask when it comes to discussing the merits of any piece of ‘new’ technology versus those that came before it (and in the case of Beta-Max vs. VHS, those technologies which are competing with it) is: “what problem was it supposed to fix?”

In order to answer the question properly, however, we have to take a look at where books came from.


Where did books come from and what were they supposed to do?

Not so long ago ‘Books’ were the new kid on the block when it came to taking large amounts of information and condensing it down into one easily accessible, and geographically mobile, location. Back in the BC’s (or BCE’s for those of you who think the Gregorian Calendar is for squares and people with funny haircuts) books and scrolls went head to head in a battle over which file format would reign supreme. For a while there, it looked like scrolls would win out: given their propensity towards being rather large and cylindrical in shape, and the ease with which you could club someone to death with one, given the right circumstances.

The problem was that they turned out to be a hell of a thing to hold. Turning the page was a pain because it required well… turning… And if you screwed up while trying to write in one of the damn things (being in essence one long and continuous page) you had to throw the whole of the scroll out lest you get laughed at by the ancient Greeks with their fancy pants erasable wax tablets. And don’t even get me started on how if you dropped one half of a scroll anywhere which had even the slightest amount of an incline, then you’d have to have the reflexes of a ninja, or the running speed of Usain Bolt, to catch the escaping vellum or papyrus encased rod before it made a break for freedom and ended up either in a puddle or on the wrong side of the inkwell. In any case, scrolls weren’t know for traveling well, and in most cases their owners tended to prefer that they didn’t travel at all.

Books on the other hand, although pricier to make (at least to begin with), came with the built in advantage that until you’d bound the pages together, any mistake you made while penning one was easily rectified by sticking the corner of said page into the nearest candle and watching that sucker burn. Books were also, on the whole, more forgiving when it came to keeping your place while navigating through them (although it might surprise you to learn that “page numbers” weren’t a standard feature of the ‘Book-Basic’ operating system for the first thousand years or so). And along with books, there came the rise of the roaring bookmark cottage industry.

Unlike scrolls, which needed to be left open till such a time as you could roll them closed, you could keep your place in a book by sticking a bit of pretty much anything that could be described as having the qualities of being somewhat ‘narrow’ and ‘thin’ into the space between pages. Or, if you happened to be a complete barbarian, you could turn the book over and lay it page side down without fear of having your place lost by having either half of the book roll away. Suffice to say, the growth of bookmarks soon gave rise to sub-genre’s of bookmarkery ranging from the amusing ‘prank-marks’ to the slightly risky lace bordered R-ratedness of the ever deplorable ‘smut-marks;’ but alas, none of these things can truly be said to exist without the other, and bookmarks of all sizes, sorts and types remain with us to this day. (Note: folding the corners of pages was at the time, and always will be, considered a most grievous sin worthy of the harshest of punishments including, but not limited to, death by a thousand paper cuts.)

There was a time in the dark ages where books went out of style, but that had more to do with the average price of paper and the general illiteracy of the masses then anything else. Books, for their part, survived this period by keeping to their natural habitats. Where they, like any creature being exposed to the blood smeared sharp pointed bits of fiery natural selection, survived by evolving a thick (and often spike covered) leather carapace which proved to be equally good at protecting their bearers from a terminal case of sword through the gut and for regularly beating the illiterate and irreligious into pulpy blood smeared submission.

Understandably, back in those days, to say that “knowledge had weight to it,” had a very different —and significantly more violent— meaning than it does now. It wasn’t until very recently, however, that books, (in no small part because of the printing press, the invention of movable/resizable type, and the growth of the pulp and paper industry) took on the more user friendly and pedestrian hand held qualities that they exhibit today.


What’s in a Book


“If reading is to accomplish anything more than passing time, it much be active. You can’t let your eyes glide across the lines of a book and come up with an understanding of what you have read. Now an ordinary piece of light fiction, like say, [Harry Potter,] doesn’t require the most active kind of reading. The books you read for pleasure can be read in a state of relaxation, and nothing is lost. But a great book, rich in ideas and beauty, a book that raises and tries to answer great fundamental questions, demands the most active reading of which you are capable. You don’t absorb the ideas of [Freud or Lewis] in the way you absorb the crooning of [Bieber or Perry]. You have to reach for them. That you cannot do while you’re asleep.”

—Mortimer Adler, As found in: Saturday Review, 1940.

Earlier when I said that books’ have “evolved” since their initial conception, I wasn’t being facetious (well not entirely). Books, like anything that has had considerable longevity in the face of the human race’s propensity toward boredom, have had to adapt to needs of the societies which created them. As storage places for the written word, books have been adapted to interface with their readers in a variety of ways. These include such things as: Genres, Title pages, Tables of Contents, Indexes, Glossaries, Chapters, Footnotes, Endnotes, Bibliographic Essays, Headings, Subheadings, References, Cross-references, Imbedded Quotes, Offset Quotes, Volumes, Verse & Sentence Numbers, Cover Blurbs, and the list goes on…

Books are the stuff of peoples dreams and nightmares and they (albeit in roundabout sort of way) give the human race the ability to engage in a rather rudimentary sort of telepathy. Transporting us to worlds of unbridled imagination, instructing, informing and educating us, and filling our heads with other peoples thoughts. In the words of George R. R. Martin’s Jojen Reid “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” Books, in a very special sort of way, allow us to engage with the world in a manner that goes beyond the confines of our own experiences.

And there is something to be said about the simple act of owning a book, or bringing one home for a library. A book, at least while its in your hands, is yours. It allows you to dictate your own reality. You can read it back to front, front to back, from the middle outwards, and from the outer edges inwards. You can skip the bad bits, jump to the good bits, stick a finger beside a confusing passage and flip back till it makes sense. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to control your own little world, holding a book in your hand should give you a fair bit of insight into what it might be like.

Reading a book is by definition –a lived experience. It is something that is both tactile and intellectually edifying. It is something that can be approached, and engaged with, at any speed and at any time. In fact, when seen in a certain light, books can be quite comforting, because you never really have to afraid that they are going to go somewhere when you aren’t looking.

A book, at least in terms of its physical qualities, is utterly unpretentious, and in the end, what becomes of it, if anything (unlike so much of the crazy fast paced world we live in…) is completely up to you.



Problems, Problems, Everyone’s Got Problems… but how to fix them?


What problem is it that Ebooks are trying to remedy? And is there something inherently problematic about good old fashion analog books that makes them redundant in todays society? Their pedlars seem to think so, but I can’t for the life of me think of a reason why having something exist in 3 dimensions is an issue for individuals who are well acquainted with the storage capacity of a shelf set aside for storing said bits of glued together tree pulp…

The big thing which ebooks offer is a more ‘economical’ use of space. Most tablets and ereaders, whether they be made by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google, Sony, Microsoft, Samsung or Apple, can store hundreds, if not thousands of books, in a space that is less than 7.5 millimetres thick. In quite a literal sense, tablets and readers allow you to carry a library with you wherever you go.

But what you have to ask yourself is whether this is an improvement, or a trade? I’ve been in dozens of university libraries and picked up nary a book. Having a library on the same device which contains my copy of “Wolf Amongst Us,” and “Angry Birds” doesn’t make me any more likely to boot up the old ereader when all I really want to do is veg out or (as most university students from back in my day were want to do) seek out an ideal place to take a nap.

Ereader and ebook pedlars also like to argue that they’ve solved the problem of being able to read in the dark, by of all things, “backlighting” their screens or embedding an LED above the display. To which I respond:

a.) Don’t they know what a lamp is for?


b.) Why would I want a back lit screen when I can wear a fancy hat, or a pair of awesome LED festooned spectacles? As can be found here.

And its not as if they can actually claim that ereaders actually allow you to read faster. Reading speed is very much dependent on the reading habits of the reader. I can finish a 200 page book in under an hour. Do I retain all of the information on the pages while reading at this speed? No, absolutely not, but I find myself frustrated by my tablet because I tend to get motion sickness when trying to read fast no matter whether I swipe vertically or horizontally. And don’t even get me started on things like “this” as there’s no way I want to read a book by having its words flashed at me by a smug and officious program. Just because I can read fast, doesn’t mean I always want to! More importantly though, regardless of the speed at which I read I find that ereaders have yet to catch up with the simple act of turning pages at your own speed.



Book vs. Ebook


At this point (in this rather lengthy rant) we will jump back into Keim’s article and his discussion of various studies by Professors Anne Mangen, Erik Wästlund, and Judith Thompson. Mangen, Wästlund, and Thompson, point to the notion that interfacing with a tablet, or reading from a screen, adds various levels of distraction which compete and lessen the reader’s ability to engage with what they are looking at. Physical books, on the other hand, are less visually distracting and more “tactile” in their presentation. You can hold a book, and interact with it directly which Mangen, Wästlund and Thompson’s research has shown to be an important part of helping the reader engage more deeply with the text. Yet to say that books will always be definitively better than ebooks when it comes to things like critical reading, learning and comprehension is a very skewed and short sighted argument to make.

Rather what the research is saying, is that as of right now, physical books seem to be more helpful to their readers cognitive processes, because they are less distracting and more personally valuable in ways which ebooks have yet to achieve. Will this always be the case? I honestly don’t know. But as a card carrying member of the Bookinati I value the look, feel and aesthetic of a paper bound book to its ‘eee-lect-ronic’ counterparts for far more utilitarian reasons than the high minded arguments put forward in Keim’s article. As when it comes right down to it, you’ll never find a better (and more cost effective) bug squasher than a solidly constructed 500+ page paper book.

Because, after all…

What is knowledge if it doesn’t have any weight to it?

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