About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Steven Paul Leiva on the future of printed books

With the popularity of readers really taking off just in the last year or two, this post over Steven Paul Leiva's This 'n That blog is more than timely.

I share many of Leiva's biases, no doubt in part because we are from roughly the same generation, but people coming along after us are going to see the world differently. He has produced a long, meditative, and I think wise and insightful post.


The book, what we are now calling the traditional book, “...a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers,” has been both a more successful and less successful delivery system than the vacuum-packed can. It never alters the “taste” of its contents, but, because it is prone to wear and tear, mold and mildew, not to mention the evil of dust and the negligence of borrowers, it does not always have a long shelf life. However it is quite user friendly—portable with pages not difficult to turn, easy on the eyes depending on the type size, and usually of a warm, inviting feel. You can underline and write in the margins if you so choose to desecrate it. In essence, books travel well with us. Books can be boon companions. If you are a book reader—and who reading this blog wouldn’t be—books might well figure into highlights of your personal history. That book or series of books you shared with your best childhood buddy, say those Frazzeta cover-illustrated paperbacks of the Mars novels by Edgar Rich Burroughs; that beat up copy of Siddhartha you were reading while sitting around the collage quad that attracted the attention of that long-haired blonde beauty who looked just liked Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas; that Saul Bellow novel that kept dogging you when you were in your twenties—you loved it, you hated it, you loved it, you hated it—; that rare book of short stories from her favorite author that you “scored” in finding at a used book store and gave to her, her smile back convincing you that she was indeed the love of your life; those Dr. Seuss books you read out loud to your kids, acting them out in a gloriously foolish performance; that dark, dangerous, bloody serial-killer novel you read while sitting on a warm, sunny beach somewhere during your most wonderful vacation ever; that great jazz musician’s biography you read while on a long train trip, the train providing the rhythm section. You can remember the look, the feel, the touch, the cover, the heft of all of these books and you remember them with great fondness, yet isn’t it the content that really deserves to be part of your memory? Wasn’t the delivery system—the look, the feel, the touch, the cover, the heft—really just, dare I call it, an appendix to the content?

Smells can bring on a flood of memories, but are they memories of smells? The aroma of a great meal is delightful, but it is not the aroma that will nourish you.


Jon Moles said...

I do like reading books more than an electronic screen, especially for extended periods of time. My eyes seem to fatigue much more quickly when staring at LCDs than paper. That being said, I think there is an environmental argument to be made concerning the amount of books printed that sit in warehouses or are disposed of improperly. I also like the idea of carrying around a complete library in one small electronic device for portability and search functionality. I think it is inevitable that books will be digitized, especially seeing as how I no longer own any CDs. Might as well start working on the transition now.

Ergun Coruh said...

Another crisis our generation had to have. I now own a Kindle as I no longer have space left in my apartment to put new books in. Unfortunately the e-reader has no personality but admittedly it is incredibly practical.

English is my second language so the online dictionary is a blessing, just point your cursor and there you go, the word is translated. Ease of taking notes, bookmarks, searching, reading on the train, packing, unpacking, and the fact that I can sync with e-reader application on my personal computer, these are all fantastic stuff. I can't tell you how much my reading efficiency increased (I can even read while I am standing in a crowded train as the e-reader is extremely light and well designed to be held with one hand).

Alas I hate to see bookshops disappearing as for me a library or a bookshop is the warmest place on Earth. There is definitely an intimate proportionality and sensation you can feel between the author and its work when you touch and browse a printed book, this is definitely not there in e-book form. And how we would come into terms of losing such a wonderful experience I don’t know but it is the reality we have to accept I am afraid.

Mike said...

"Wasn’t the delivery system—the look, the feel, the touch, the cover, the heft—really just, dare I call it, an appendix to the content?"

Is the taste, aroma and presentation of food just an appendix to the calorific content?

Don't underestimate the physiological significance of the smell and heft of a book. I've got volumes which I can open, and hold and smell which transport me back to a place and time where that book was first presented to me, in a way that the mere words on a page or screen do not and (dare-I-say) cannot.

The packaging and shape of a book ( or CD or LP ) provide so many additional cues to my memory over their digital analogues. I recall contents of a book sometimes by the location in its thickness, or that there's a blue image on the lower left page. These cues may be available to parts of my mammalian brain that can't as usefully isolate material from a continuous stream of homogeneous text.

So while the content of a book, or piece of music or a meal may be the central experience, it is reinforced, amplified, remembered, sought after because of the way it is packaged. Some may aspire to seeking out pure love from a partner, but it's that messy beatup confection of packaging that we fall for and endure with.

Adrian said...

Reading comments about the advantages of paper of ebooks sounds almost fetishistic, focused more on the medium than the message inside. Where is the discussion about the reading, the words, the books themselves? At least the MP3 vs vinyl debates *claim* to provide different sounds. I think that when we acknowledge that the love many readers have for their books arises from their love for reading and not vice versa then we can understand that, whatever format we get our books in, they'll always evoke our passions. I downloaded the ebook library software Calibre which has a cover browser and all sorts of search & categorization features and I can already feel the same proprietary pride build in my small ebook library that I used to feel for my paper books. This is probably helped along by the fact that I've moved so often that I had to sell many of my paper books and I don't think I'll ever have to get rid of my ebooks because of mere storage space. It also helps that dozens of out-of-print PG Wodehouse are on Project Gutenberg (and now my ebook library) which are extremely difficult to find anywhere else.

As for the actual merits of ebooks, clearly they don't do everything that paper does but then paper doesn't do everything ebooks do. So what? We've seen the shift from vinyl to tapes to CDs and now to MP3s and at each stage we gave up some things to gain some others, and if anything people listen to more music now than they ever did in the past. I am hopeful that we'll see something similar with books, becoming more convenient, portable, inexpensive and instantaneous leading to more reading than ever. And ultimately I hope we can all agree that whether we read paper, ebooks or even audiobooks, the important thing is that we're reading.

Spencer Troxell said...

I can't imagine traditional books ever totally slipping away. I can however, imagine them dwindling down to a hobby item for enthusiasts only, much like records.

that's the reason I'm not sad about it: important things always have--and always will be--safe in the hands of nerds.

Adrian said...

I've got volumes which I can open, and hold and smell which transport me back to a place and time where that book was first presented to me, in a way that the mere words on a page or screen do not and (dare-I-say) cannot.

I have audiobooks that I listened to on holidays and the sound of them can evoke memories of those trips very powerfully. And it's very specific, far more than the smell of any book. Does this mean that books are inferior?

After getting my Kindle, I re-read a couple books from my childhood and you know what, it's the words and the cover image which have the power to evoke memories. You aren't given anything up by going electronic.

But lets say that you are different than me and this really will be lost. Is that really a big deal? We've lost a lot of things in the transition from vinyl to MP3 but we've gained a lot as well. I am one of those readers who thinks that it's the words which give meaning to the book, not the book which gives meaning to the words. All this talk about the smell and the bindings seems like it's elevating the pulp and paper above the content, like some library cargo cult - all books, no reading.

K said...

I'm going on a holiday to Europe in about 6 months time so right now I'm trying to work out which books to take with me. I'm limited obviously by weight and space, so I have to choose. If I had an eReader then I wouldn't have this problem, my entirely library would be at the touch of a button.

I think sometime in the future I'll get an eReader as moving taught me that books are an incredibly inefficient way of going about things.

Charles Sullivan said...

Look at music and its recorded media over time.

Phonographs, cassette tape, CDs. MP3s.

And let's look at their carrying devices:
Turntable, tape recorder, CD player, MP3 device.

Do young people make the equivalent of a mix tape for their sweethearts or friends with the latest technology?

Maybe, on a facebook page.

We've lost some aspect of sharing with the new music media.

Everyone seems plugged in to their own earplugs, isolated, individual.

The youngest people don't even know the difference in relation to the shifting music media and it's cultural influences.

I used to buy newspapers, now I don't; I read my news online.

Books? Maybe they'll go the same direction, eventually. I hope not though.

I say this as a have about 20 books spread over the foot of my bed. And I don't own any kind of e-reader.

Mike said...

@Tyro: The chemical senses have a lower-level point of access to the brain, and memory in particular. The smell of a book awakens memories even before I've even gotten to reading or hearing the content. These are memories that supplement those evoked by the content.

Words and cover image evoke memories, but they are not exclusive channels. Does a photograph or audio recording of a person you love replace them?

I have a huge collection of digital music. I recognised the advantage of digitising to manage a collection of 3000 CDs. However I miss the connection, the extra attention I pay when I physically locate a disc or LP and start it, and the opportunistic discovery of something on the cover, or of something else which is spatially related to its placement in my library.

Often when I pick up a copy of one of my favourite books, which I found in the same edition as I'd discovered it, I remember that moment of discovery when I was digging around on the bottom shelf of a library nearly 40 years ago. I can put myself back into that physical space, where I know the location of specific titles in 3D space.

I'm a physical entity who interacts with all these items, not a disembodied brain. Right now we have linear/2D delivery systems for electronic media, but I suspect that they will be soon superseded by more embodied systems that emulate the way humans interact with their physical environment.

Adrian said...


the opportunistic discovery of something on the cover, or of something else which is spatially related to its placement in my library.

Have you used Calibre yet? I downloaded it and snagged an existing library off the net filled with a bunch of older books and I've begun adding my collection to it. There's lots of opportunity for this sort of browsing and serendipity. The cover browser and custom genres and tag searching allow you to slowly flip through and spot dusty gems.

But sure, I haven't found an Internet analogue for browsing the stacks in a book store or library and maybe there won't be one. That said, I look at music services like Pandora or even Amazon's recommendation lists and I couldn't imagine anything like that in the physical world. If anything, I'd bet that creative people will find more, not less, ways of sharing interesting new books and forgotten oldies.

Ultimately it's about the reading and all of our fond memories and intense emotions will attach to whatever we use to let us read. Right now they've attached to the paper & pulp, I've seen it attach to the sound of an audiobook and I've little doubt we'll see it happen with ebook readers, covers and, as always, the words themselves. All this doom & gloom about how we're losing the smell of books is missing the book for the trees and confusing cause & effect. The words are the cause and they aren't going anywhere.