What makes books special?
May 14, 2005 11:27 PM   Subscribe

What makes books special? What makes them different from other media?

At the risk of sounding naïve, I need to ask the old question of paper books versus digital media. I honestly wonder if people who get all their information and entertainment from TV and the Internet miss out on something that only the physical paper book can provide. It's not portability, since I can sit on the bus and download pdf files to my cell phone or read articles on my laptop. And feel perfectly entertained and informed in doing so. But do I miss out on some unique quality in the physical book, the 5 x 7 inches glued-together bunch of papers, read linearly from one end to the other? What is it? (I wouldn't be surprised if this has been asked before, but I couldn't find it in the archives).
posted by Panfilo to Media & Arts (31 answers total)
It's the sensory explosion that begins from the moment you see the book's artful, visually stimulating cover, down to the roughness or smoothness of the pages as your fingers trace the edges of each leaf before turning, not discounting the idle stroking of said pages during reading. Some of us even get off on the way books smell, that freshly-printed ink on bookpaper smell in new ones and that musty, ancient woodsy smell in old ones. The smell of wisdom. Mmmm!

There's purposeful reading and then there's reading for pleasure. Books are sensual, didn't you know?
posted by Lush at 11:42 PM on May 14, 2005

Yes, I agree with Lush, whose handle is artfully chosen I might add.

But also there still remain three practical qualities in which books beat electronics. Firstly, the softness of the reflected light on paper is much more calming than the directed radiation of emitted light. Even unlit LCDs have a graininess which provides a shabbier experience than the clarity of ink on paper.

Also, fingers on books are still a superior scan method than an electronic index - I can pop over to the begiining of the next chapter, interrupt my reading to flip to the author bio, flip back to re-read a previous incident - all much faster than you can type "Search" or "Page forward."

Finally, I can take some books on long travels, on an ocean voyage or on a long trip through the desert and not worry about a supply of AC or the constant replenishment of triple-A batteries. They remain still more portable in the longer stretches and this helps those of us who adore books cling to the false belief that they are immortal.
posted by Ariosto at 11:58 PM on May 14, 2005

Disregarding the fetishistic relationship that many readers have with their books there are some exceptional features of books that, specifically because of the low-tech nature, make them uniquely useful:

Portability: books can be used when no other equipment is available for reading data.

Self-contained: Extracting information from a book requires no additional hardware, no software to support a particular format. A book will not run out of battery power on the bus.

Longevity: The "open" architecture of a book -- text on paper -- means that so long as the book itself survives, it remains usable. This is not true for digital information. Data storage devices grow obsolete, file format specifications become lost in the mists of time. I can easily hand you a book from the 1960s with the expectation it will work. I doubt I could do the same with a roll of punch tape, a mag spool, a disk pack, or a stack of punch cards, any of which are from the same era.
posted by majick at 12:09 AM on May 15, 2005

Actually, I left out perhaps the most important thing of all, although it is a followup to my last sentence.

Physical writing requires no intermediary. We see it with our own eyes - it is carved into the world.

Because of this, we can read writing that was scrawled on rocks thousands of years ago but we have trouble reading "writing" that was stored on a floppy disk a mere 20 years ago.
posted by Ariosto at 12:11 AM on May 15, 2005

Books are special to us, people who grew up knowing that they were where there was stuff of huge value. They will be special to future generations who will be told of their importance. But physically printed media is on the way out.

The smell of books is great, the DPI is also great. The fact that they don't run out of batteries is also a huge bonus.

What sucks about books is their size. This will kill them. I had to move a professor's books once, and this multi-day operation convinced me that books time has come. All the information he had would have only filled one or two hard drives.

Electronic paper or something similar will slowly replace books. There are already people out there who read primarily from iPaqs and similar devices.
posted by sien at 12:20 AM on May 15, 2005

Expanding on Ariosto's point about searching, books provide an affordance for search - you can have a tactile, kinetic memory for where you were up to, where a particular passage is, etc. I don't know about you, but I can always find my place in a book.

Paper and ink are still superior for readability too.

However, I suspect books with high quality illustrations will be the last holdouts against digital media.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:49 AM on May 15, 2005

You can read a book in the bathtub and if you drop it the worst that happens is that it gets soggy.

Isaac Asimov wrote an essay describing a high-tech reading device of the future that was portable, self-contained, with easy random access to all its content, etc, and of course it turned out to be a book.
posted by mono blanco at 1:19 AM on May 15, 2005

You can't press a flower, you can't hide your money, you can't lick an errant drip of chocolate, you can't write a passionate dedication in your own hand, you can't smell the ghost of your girlfriend's perfume, you can't fold or dog ear, you can't taste the fine dust, you can't lose yourself in the heat of the bath or outside in the rain in the pages of an e-book.
posted by melissa may at 1:28 AM on May 15, 2005

You can't weigh a file in your hand and judge the loquacity or brevity of it in one simple, tactile motion.

Also, throwing a file at someone (or, say, at an unwanted insect) doesn't have quite the same effect.

On the other hand, reading a text on an electronic book or PDA is pretty damn blissful, properly executed. Reading in the dark without a lamp with a good reader client set to an appropriate auto-scroll rate is fantastic. It's the closest thing to directly injecting pure, clean data and/or storytelling into my brain I've ever personally experienced, and I have a bit of a fetish about trying to instigate such experiences.

If someone ever comes up with a way to keep all of my hundreds or even thousands of pounds of old, musty books in the space and weight of a 3.5" hard drive without sacrificing any of their physicality, please let me know. I've had to downsize my addiction twice in the last year and it hurts like punching myself in the groin with a gold brick.

All that aside, there is a lot to be said about the nearly instant access of a well bound and printed physical book. If you're futzing with some sort of interface, you're not reading.

Imagine how hard and fruitless and frustrating it would be to try and read Brothers Karamazov or Goethe's Faust - or anything else sufficiently dense, subtle, and weighty not only in text but also of mind - in an inelegant format like badly photocopied looseleaf pages. Or with missing pages. Or while batteries kept running out. Or the screen resolution and font tired you prematurely or otherwise added totally unneeded fiction.

But then, I can carry a small stack of novels in the space of half of one on my old, trusty Palm device.
posted by loquacious at 2:03 AM on May 15, 2005

Unless I missed someone saying it above, to me, the most obvious special feature of a real book versus other electronic forms of media is: it only has one use. Hence those wonderful mind wanderings and associations and sensorial input so eloquently outlined above have a single object upon which to imprint, gain associative patterns and otherwise delight.
All e-media are used for multiple things. There's nothing special about them. (obviously the content can be)
posted by peacay at 3:29 AM on May 15, 2005

Ink is better than LCD in the ways Ariosto mentioned, making it a lot easier on the eye - much higher resolution, passive lighting, and (mostly the case of unlit LCD, but to a much lesser extent all LCD), much higher contrast.

That stuff is really important.

There will come a day when non-LCD technology can replicate those features, and books may largely die off at that point, but not before.

The Sony Librie for example is the first consumer product to use epaper to try to compete with paper. LCD does not, and cannot compete, for the reasons already mentioned. The epaper of the Librie is passively lit like paper, it requires no electricity to display the text, it only needs electricity if you want to change the page (the Librie battery life is advertised as 10,000 page changes). The resolution and contrast is high compared to LCD. Being in the USA, I haven't ever seen one, but I think it's a safe bet that the resolution and contrast are no-where near as high as ink, but it's a start - an epaper is the only thing that can possibly compete with paper, not LCD. (I personally suspect the Librie will fail in the market, not because of the display, but because Sony is one of the worst companies for (ab)using proprietary formats and other crap to lock-in the buyer, and so if the Librie is no different, you'd have to be nuts to buy it - no-one wants a book that is DRM'ed to the hilt, and requires additional over-priced same-brand purchases to do anything with. Just another in a long line of potentially good products invented by Sony that failed because Sony's crappy lock-in policies made them more trouble than they were worth).

(That's another reason digital may replace paper in some areas - because some publishers LOVE the idea of books that people can't share. The fact that the average pulp romance novel is read by seven people in its life is not seen as a success by some, but as six lost sales. Dabbling in the use of DRM to force higher sales is already being seen in some captive markets, such as medical textbooks - solving the pesky problem of students borrowing texts, and worse - students selling their textbooks from last year's course to its new students in order to help pay for the textbooks needed for this year's course, among other things. So long as consumers have only a dim awareness of DRM (or in the case of students, dependancy on the University keeping their welfare in mind), this will continue to drive some publishers towards digital, but at some point I imagine people will probably wake up, and anti-consumer stuff like DRM will surely become a much harder feature to slip under the buyer's rader.)

Personally, I love books, but I've started to check my impulse to buy them because I've noticed I simply don't ever use them any more. My personal library goes unused because I can find a wider range of information quicker online. I have a tablet-PC, and I tend to find myself rarely without it. If I was just wanting to read a paperback, then the real book experience is easily better and will remain so for some time, but I don't seem to have the time for paperbacks, which leaves my life rather empty of books altogether - even though I spend more time each day reading and writing that I ever did in the past.

I love books, but they don't seem to have much of a place in my life any more. Which is something I'm a little wistful about.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:48 AM on May 15, 2005

It's been my experience that most people who get their information needs from TV/the internet/digital media don't spend much time reading fiction. That's not to say you can't read fiction online--it's just hard to sustain the focus a long novel requires when you check your email and livejournal every fifteen minutes. And there is something about creating a story in your mind from nothing but words that I don't think movies and TV replace.

I read far too little fiction myself, because I waste my time on the internet, and I do miss it.
posted by Jeanne at 4:38 AM on May 15, 2005

Books might disappear, but I think it may have more to do with the evolution of the content rather than any technological superiority of the newer mediums. My feeling is that the soft, organic interface of print makes long-form content easily, and enjoyably accessable. Electronic mediums discourage long-term involvement in a single text. You aren't going to sit and invest a couple of hours reading Chekov from a screen. Too tiring, no matter how low you turn the backlight. Plus it's too impersonal...the cold, sterile environment of the little plastic box. It's perfect for the latest Crichton or Dan Brown...quick, easily swallowed chapters...some mere paragraphs long. It's perfect content for an environment that has more to do with data display.

But, it's inevitable. Publishers, too, will soon jump on the DRM bandwagon. That will require, of course, an electronic interface and proprietary file formats. Ink and paper will be killed off, not because it is an inferior technology (far from it) but because it does not suit the needs of the rights-holders.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:57 AM on May 15, 2005

Thorzdad, there are already people who do sit and read Chekov from a screen.

Book prices should drop without the cost of printing the books.

It should also be noted that there is already a vast collection of free books out there, and another huge collection of 'book warez' out there.

Like movies and music, the cat is out of the bag with respect to keeping books content DRM'd.
posted by sien at 5:21 AM on May 15, 2005

One thing that makes books extremely important in my opinion is that books, for the most part, do not have advertisements in them. It's probably only a matter of time though :(.
posted by banished at 6:22 AM on May 15, 2005

I hate this question; I don't want the marketeers to find out what makes books special in the fear they'll find a way to put "it" into some other form of media and get rid of books altogether.
posted by Doohickie at 6:46 AM on May 15, 2005

I honestly wonder if people who get all their information and entertainment from TV and the Internet miss out on something that only the physical paper book can provide.

Yes, information and entertainment. I find it hard to believe that all the answers above have to do only with the sensory experience of reading a physical book; I agree with all of it, but it's kind of irrelevant, since once people can get everything electronically (if that day ever comes, which I doubt) the infinitely greater ease and compactness will drive print from the market (and having moved three times in the last four years, I feel in my bones what sien said above about size). But you can get hardly anything from TV and the Internet. If you don't believe me, you're spending too much time online and need to go visit a library. Go visit, say, the history section. Pull down a book and go to the bibliography. Here, let's look at Crucible of War by Fred Anderson. It's not some dusty specialist tome, it's a very lively book about one of the most important episodes in American history, written for the general reader. The first footnote references The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 1, 1748-August 1755; Archives de Québec: Rapport de l'archiviste de la province de Québec, 1927-28; Colonial Records of South Carolina: Documents Relating to Indian Affairs, 1754-1765; L.K. Koontz's Robert Dinwiddie, Servant of the Crown; George F.G. Stanley's New France: The Last Phase, 1744-1760; Lawrence Henry Gipson's The British Empire Before the American Revolution, vol. 6 [of 15], The Great War for the Empire: The Years of Defeat, 1754-1757; Douglas Edward Leach, Arms for Empire: A Military History of the British Colonies in North America, 1607–1763; and Richard White's The Middle Ground : Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815.

The last of these is recent enough (1991) that it's in Amazon, and actually has the "Search inside this book" feature, so if you want you can read a fair amount of it online (which I recommend -- it's a great book). For the rest, you have to have actual printed matter in your hand. Gipson's British Empire was his life's work, which he finished (in 1970) just before dying at the age of 90, and it's been consulted and argued with by historians ever since; do you seriously think it's going to be available electronically in your lifetime? Not to mention all the archives, letters, manuscripts, and zillions of other sources historians need to do their work. Yes, yes, I know, you're not a historian, but that's just a small sample, to give you an idea. Look around that library. Try it with other subjects. Try to find a good online dictionary of any language other than the most common. And go to the fiction section; even aside from the copyright issue, you'll be amazed at how little has made it to the internet.

Sure, you can spend your life just reading what's online, and you might never miss what's not. But you could spend your life reading comics, too. It's one thing to say "I'll stick with what's online, and I don't care about what's not," but it's quite another to think that "Everything important is online or will be shortly." What's available is a tiny, tiny fraction of what's out there in the real world of books and paper, and will be for our lifetimes.
posted by languagehat at 7:11 AM on May 15, 2005

A lot what makes up my personal preference for books has been said upthread (physical strain on eyes, neck, back, and wrists; portability and low-tech ease (I regularly forget to charge my cell phone and PDA until they run out of juice. I don't want to have to remember to charge my books, too)), but I'd like to add:

It's much easier, and takes less peripheral software, to write marginalia in an actual book than on an electronic document.

It's much easier to share an actual book than an electronic document -- there's no question of compatibility or having the right reading software or how to transfer large files. You just hand the thing over.

Books can range in cost from zero dollars to more than I care to pay for them. Not only can you get them from the library, but you can find them in used bins, yard sales, bags next to the dumpster in the alley, flea markets, thrift stores, charity donation boxes... I'm probably not going to find any electronic documents for a nickel on the shelf at the back of the Brown Elephant, and even if I did, it would probably be in a format that is outdated and unreadable by whatever reader I am using.

Speaking of readers, electronic documents require everyone to stay up to date with technology, or use public resources such as those found at the library. This limits their usefulness to the majority of the population, who cannot afford lap tops, PDAs, cell phones with document capabilities, or book readers. Even if everyone who liked to read books was suddenly gifted with the appropriate technology to read electronic documents right now, the nature of software and hardware development is such that it doesn't rest. In a year, everybody's shiny new document reading technology will be outdated and incompatable with the format of new books.

Books are considerably more durable. I can drop them, fold over the pages, throw them in my purse rather than carry them carefully in a padded case, their OSes don't crash, I don't have to run virus or spyware scans, they don't overheat, I don't have to reformat them, they don't inexplicably run slow... I just open the cover and go, every single time.

And in the sensuality category, I love the feel of matte covers on trade paperbacks, and the way the pages on some hardbacks have soft, ragged edges. I also like to look around on the train and see what other people are reading. I like the heft of books - yes they are heavy but that just means that I have a lot of book to enjoy. I even like the sound that books make when you thump them with your hand or drop them onto a table.

The only benefit to e-books, and the reason why I could see myself buying any sort of book reader, is travel. On extended trips, I can go through a lot of reading material. For ease of packing, if I load ten books onto my laptop, that would be more convenient than taking an extra wheelie bag just for books.
posted by jennyb at 7:57 AM on May 15, 2005

languagehat I have the feeling you may, by and large, be preaching to the converted. That just assumes that a fair % of readers here have gone through higher education of one sort or another and have (hopefully) learned the value of books. I can't imagine many would argue against the premise that a library contains intrinsic worth of which only a fraction has been digitized.
But I know I was resonding to this:

What makes books special? What makes them different from other media?

and saw it more of a physical rather than content contrasting question.
Mind you, I wouldn't go as far as to be so dismissive of online content as you implied with your "information and entertainment" beginning. It IS a fantastic and entertaining resource and yes, I probably do spend too much online. But with only a smattering of discernment it is football fields away from TV in terms of quality.

And on preview: Come the revolution, dogearing and marginalia writing will be a sin '- )
posted by peacay at 8:09 AM on May 15, 2005


When I was younger, I was employed for many years in various libraries, mostly shelving books. Like all jobs, no matter how simple, you become very very good at them. I read the book titles and descriptions as I shelved, so after a few years I had the entire dewey decimal system in my head - in more detail than the catalogues in most ways. Unlike a catalogue, access was instant, and my mental catalogue could easily find books that would cover the kinds of topics so esoteric that the catalogue was useless to try to find. (And I know when the catalogue was useless. When all the librarians are stumped and have no further idea how to proceed, it's a good bet that you've reached the practical limits of the system)

(Then I went to a university, which didn't use the dewey decimal system for their libraries, so much of those years of info were unusable there, but that's another story)

Anyway, my point is that at my prime, I could (and did) use libraries to a far fuller, more efficient, and more effective extent than pretty much anyone not working in one long-term. And speaking as that person, I have found that for 99% of my information needs, the internet really truely actually does soundly beat libraries.

This is largely because
1) vastly superior searching capability. (Libraries are only just starting to set up systems intended to allow you to run complex searches through all the text of all the pages of all of the books in the library). Having more information in a library is no use if you can't find it. (And I could find it like few can)
2). Convenience and time - the library isn't in your home, while simultaniously being at work, at the cafe where you have lunch, and in the park. And typically, if I've exhausted the internet and my digital reference material such that I have to go to the local library for information, it is fairly likely that the library will be likewise out of its depth - they'll have to request the most-likely-to-be-relevent books from a central repository. A big library has a lot of esoteric material, but local libraries are simply not in the same category.
3). Access to living information. Books are dead. Dead information is of more limited use. If you don't understand the advanced engineering equations needed to answer your oddball hobby construction question, the library cannot help you, wheras on the internet, you just search your mailing list to see if any other hobbiest - from the thousands around the world on the mailing list - IS an engineer who can (or has) addressed the problem and can show what they did it in practical terms (eg what kind of material to use where and how, rather than the maths that suggest that solution). Many of the questions in "Ask Metafilter" itself are good examples of information that is very difficult, if not impossible, to learn from libraries.

You are of course correct that there is a vast wealth of information in libraries that is not online (though Google is working to change this), but in my experience, it is just not the case that you can get hardly anything digitally. If you know where and how to look, and/or are prepared to spend a little money (about the same as late fees you get from a library :-).

I know what libraries have to offer better than most, and there are times when you absolutely need them, but even for a balanced life, those times are becoming fewer and farther between, unless your work/hobby is exactly the right kind of specialised, like that of the historian example you mention.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:57 AM on May 15, 2005

languagehat I have the feeling you may, by and large, be preaching to the converted. That just assumes that a fair % of readers here have gone through higher education of one sort or another and have (hopefully) learned the value of books.

Oh dear me, I wish I could believe you were right. But I don't think so. From what I've read about college kids today, and from the sense I get of people's attitudes here, I think people under, what, forty? 35? anyway, some age in there are so used to spending time on the internet and so impressed with all the stuff there that they forget, if they ever knew, how much more there is in that boring, outdated world of print.

I wouldn't go as far as to be so dismissive of online content as you implied with your "information and entertainment" beginning.

I actually meant to come back and rephrase, because I thought I might have left the impression I thought the internet was a trivial resource. Far from it; I spend a huge amount of time online and am ever more impressed with the variety of information that's out there. But because I'm aware of how useful and attractive a resource it is, I feel impelled to remind people how limited it is.

Look at it this way. Think of MetaFilter as a Latvian Culture Club. Everybody here knows Latvian thoroughly and loves it to bits. Everyone keeps talking with pride about how much is available in Latvian. And I'm reminding people that however much is available in Latvian, there's always going to be a lot more available in English, and you're drastically limiting your horizons if you don't read stuff in English. Doesn't mean I don't love Latvian, I'm just pointing out the reality that's too easily forgotten once you're immersed in the comfortable world of the LCC.

On preview: -harlequin- , I don't quite know what to say. I find it hard to believe that anyone who knows libraries and what's available so well could say that the internet is better "for 99% of my information needs." "Convenience and time" is irrelevant (and "vastly superior searching capability" comes under that heading); we're not talking about convenience, we're talking about what's available. If a certain manuscript is only available in the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Desert, and you have to spend months arranging a trip there to see it, that's damned inconvenient, but so what? If you need access to that MS, that's where it is. And as for:

Books are dead. Dead information is of more limited use.

I'm sorry, but that's just dumb. Books aren't "dead," they're physical objects, which has its good and bad points. Yes, to update a book you have to put out a new edition, which takes time; on the other hand, it's still available when the power goes out. And I have no idea what you mean about "dead information"; information is either right or wrong, and there's plenty of both in both media. You talk about "your oddball hobby construction question" -- is that really what this is all about? Getting quicker answers to your hobby problems? Because that's a pretty restricted life if you ask me. Once more: I love the internet, I love the access to people all over the world and oddball webpages and all sorts of goodies -- but for much of what I'm interested in, there simply isn't enough there and will not be in our lifetimes. You say "Google is working to change this"; you must realize, if you give it a moment's thought, that they're taking grains of sand, one by one, from a huge beach that's getting bigger by the minute. There's no way they're going to get everything -- every book, magazine, newspaper, letter, everything -- online in the foreseeable future. And saying "what they've got online is good enough for me" is just like saying "what's available in Latvian is good enough for me." That's fine for you, but what about the rest of us?

Oh, and peacay: see what I mean about attitudes?
posted by languagehat at 9:12 AM on May 15, 2005

A bit of an exaggeration, but a useful point to think about, is to think of libaries as specialising in the information that the average person doesn't normally need, while the internet specialises in the information that the average person does normally need.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:14 AM on May 15, 2005

If people stop making paper books, I will rent out giant storage spaces and fill them with as many treasures as I could find. With books I am taking nearly 0 risk that I'll ever be able to read them. With E-books, it's almost guaranteed that e-book companies will attempt to change the format every decade or so (maybe sooner) in an attempt to tap into the music industry style back catalogue factor.

I love books, and I'm sure one day it will turn me into a bit of a luddite, but you can take a book anywhere and never have to worry about it breaking because you dropped, got sand on it. With used books you can experience the joy of finding someone else's notes or the curious comments like "To Fran with love 1963."
posted by drezdn at 9:23 AM on May 15, 2005

the internet specialises in the information that the average person does normally need.

From my personal experience, the "average" person isn't particularly adept at finding information on the internet and usually falls back to bookstores and libraries to help them find information.
posted by drezdn at 9:25 AM on May 15, 2005

How about the nostalgia? Books and paper are the first mechanism you use to learn about the outside world. Your parents put you to bed with them. They have the advantage of being the first tools to teach you aside from your parents.
posted by filmgeek at 9:37 AM on May 15, 2005

What melissa may said so beautifully. Also, what Lush said, and what languagehat said.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 9:49 AM on May 15, 2005


"Convenience and time" is irrelevant (and "vastly superior searching capability" comes under that heading)

I disagree. If someone cannot find the information, then as far their purposes are concerned it is exactly the same as if the library doesn't have it. Information is ONLY useful if you can get access to it. This seems self-evident to me.

I also think it is false to think that more time always makes up for inferior searching capability. (eg, In a big enough library with no catelogue and the books in random order, seeking something quite esolteric, you simply wouldn't live long enough to find it.)

And I have no idea what you mean about "dead information"; information is either right or wrong,

This is an important distinction that I didn't explain very well. I am not referring to information being updated - libraries have this via periodicals. "Living" knowledge is knowledge that is in someone's head and is understood by that person. One of the many advantages of this is that it means they can explain it in terms they know you understand. Books can't do that, and this is not insignificant. Because like being unable to find information, if you are unable to understand information, at the end of the day you leave without the information you needed, and thus the library failed to help you. This is a major advantage of the internet because the internet has living information in addition to dead.

As to time not being relevant. I suspect most people flat out disagree. If so, suggesting that they are all just misguided would be patronising and eyebrow raising.

And once more, in practical terms, if a person runs out of availible time before they have their information, the library system has failed them, and they leave empty handed.

As I said, I agree there is a vast amount of information not online, (and I agree most of it will never be online in our lifetimes), but I think you seriously overestimate the realistic benefit of that information to most people's lives, take your example of a trekking to see a manuscript in a monastary in the desert - very very few people (who are not historian-like) consider that they have book needs that justify such time and expense to view a text. (field research is more common, but books, not usually).
posted by -harlequin- at 9:55 AM on May 15, 2005

drezdn: while (arguably) unfortunate, that's quite compatible with the thought, and would make a good footnote to it :)
posted by -harlequin- at 10:00 AM on May 15, 2005

Beyond the obvious sensual attractions (look, feel, smell), I love the connection I feel to the words when holding a book. I can't get that from a computer or some sort of hand-held electronic thingamajig. 75% of the time I leave my home, I have a book with me. I feel naked if I don't have a book with me.
posted by deborah at 11:21 AM on May 15, 2005

Romanticism aside, the bound book is just a tremendously stable, established technology for the transmission of text and static images. At the moment there is nothing that comes even remotely close in the overall combination of desirable size, weight, clarity, silence, cost, durability, energy consumption (it's always gonna be hard to beat none, though of course if an e-book provided its own light for dark reading that would be a real plus), and general versatility. I mean, some time back I bought a copy of The Critique of Pure Reason at a library bookstore for about two dollars. It was in almost perfect condition, utterly usable and legible, a compact, lightweight paperback with a light but durable binding. This book is fifty years old.

I can imagine a lot of things an electronic book might do for me. A theoretical perfect electronic book would offer a ton of features paper could never come through with.

But I doubt I'll buy into that technology until displays are a lot better, the overall package is a lot cheaper, and the market on content is a lot better. And the whole digital rights management issue introduces a whole other side of ridiculousness. I wouldn't buy something that wouldn't "play" unbranded, unwatermarked files. Still. Electronic books have a long way to come but I imagine they will get there in my lifetime (presuming I manage an average span, say another 40 years).

A couple things that may always be unique to books - books provide a particular weird kind of linearity in these two pages across the fold layout. Thumb a few pages forward, see where the chapter ends. Most current electronic displays give you either a continuous scroll or one page at a time. The other thing is, although this is not as significant as it once was due to the advent of shoddily computer typeset manuscripts, I think the degree of graphic design and attention to typesetting you see in print books is likely to not carry into electronic books. I hope I'm wrong because a well set book with a thoughtfully selected typeface is more aesthetically pleasing but also easier and more pleasant to read. I think the computer has generally degraded the art of typesetting and book design.
posted by nanojath at 11:25 PM on May 15, 2005

Peter Stallybrass--a literature professor at U. Penn--has written a lot about the unique features of the book versus the scroll, and a lot of those features carry over in the comparison of current books to even theoretical screen-based electronic books. For example:

- It is possible to physically bookmark the pages of a book in a way that is not possible to physically bookmark screen-based books or scrolls. For example, with your finger, while you refer to another page; but also just with those little stickies, and you can have a very real physical memory of what those bookmarks are marking.

- It is possible to have many books open in front of you side-by-side--not possible with scrolls, and I would have to have multiple e-book readers--as many readers as books I wanted to have open (you should see my desk right now, by the way).

- There were a couple more, but I can't remember them. Ease of annotation is obviously one. At any rate, it's worth tracking him down; he gives a nice overview of the history of the book as a technology and of its unique features.

Personally, I have no intention of investing even in the fancy Sony e-paper book; I'm waiting until I can buy a book that actually comes in _book form_, made of electronic paper, that accepts pen input on every page and that lets me dynamically load content into it. I'm sure this will happen in our lifetimes and it will revolutionize reading. More generally, though, I'd say that books have a lot of data in what literary scholars call the 'paratext': that is, the binding, the paper, the typeface, the design, the apparatus (contents, index, notes), the way it's divided, the way the paper is cut, the way the book is printed, etc.--and that those paratextual features are interesting and valuable, and simply don't exist for e-books. It's like the problem with record artwork, only way, way bigger. Presumably all of that will be fixed when the e-book is more of an object and less of a miniature computer terminal.
posted by josh at 4:58 PM on May 16, 2005

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