Your Nostalgia for Print Books is Nostalgia. But I Share it.

"Big Book" by Joseph BorofskyMax McGee, over at The Millions (blog) has an interesting post about “the deckled edge” as proof of people’s fetishizing “dead-tree” books. (Or nostalgia-ing, what’s this word, folks?) I especially like his characterization of how physical, paper-print books might be perceived someday (especially, I think, by a born-digital generation):

In a sleek, shiny, distant future, books may feel old and impossibly large, with too much physical mass and all these fussy pages put to use for the simple task of storing a tiny amount of data, data that is not searchable or copy and pasteable or malleable and interactive in the ways we expect of our data. These devices, one imagines, might seem incredibly blunt to our future selves, unitaskers in world where our gadgets and machines can do all.

I love how he captures an attitude simultaneously quaint, like you’d think of your grandmother trying to learn the Wii, and impatient, like… well… like trying to explain the Wii to your grandmother.

Here’s the thing, this is pretty much already how I feel about physical books. I’m starting to lose patience with them. Well, sorta. First, it’s only to a tiny extent that I’m starting to lose my patience. Just a seed sprouting. More to the point, I’m starting to lose a little patience with people who expect that their nostalgia (about books as physical objects) or the momentum of their existing habits (underlining, marginalia, dog-earring pages) are valid warrants to resist the advent of digital books and electronic texts.

I’ll be the first to say that paper-print books DO and SHOULD have a place in our current cultural practices. Screen books are net yet ready for ubiquitous adoption and circulation. Difficulty of access is a huge issue. Relatively few libraries circulate eBooks, for instance. Digital Rights Management (DRM) is going to complicate library access to a large degree. And so will the necessity of screen access. Whether it’s a Kindle, iPad, Sony Reader, Adobe Acrobat, etc., readers still need both hardware and software (and likely internet access) to effectively engage digital content. And screens still need some work. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can read articles/books/chapters all day long on a screen, but I have good quality screens (on both my desktop and laptop rigs with: high-resolution for smooth text rendering, high-contrast to make the text more discernible from the screen ground, and high refresh rates, to virtually eliminate any sense of screen flicker. I now have impressive screen stamina. But it’s important to note that we still operate in a culture where screen stamina is necessary. Technologies like the Kindle’s/Sony Reader’s e-ink are going a long way in terms of readability, but I dont’ think even they will last as technologies (bad business model, Amazon!). And in the context of portability, these issues become even more pronounced. Users always pay a premium for portability.

(I really need to write a blog entry about the endurance of print in scholarly publications, too. Maybe tomorrow.)

Yes, paper-print books still have a place. I would say they still are by far the dominant mode of textual circulation. And they should be. But they won’t always be.

Paper-print books will never, never die. But it’s not because of nostalgia or old habits. Digital texts will address and overcome those objections easily, given time. No, paper-print books will last because they are cheap and easy. They have an incredibly low access threshold. Cheap paper backs, library circulation, maintenance free preservation (read: a bookshelf). And did I mention they’re cross-platform compatible? One book fits into my hands just as well as it fits into yours.

So don’t worry. It’s going to be a while before you print-books start to take up space in your home like those antique typewriters and fountain pens. And even then, you’ll still probably love them. You should. Paper-print books are one of the worlds oldest, most stable, and arguably THE most important technologies in history. I can’t imagine a world where I take my last books down to the used bookstore and sell it for a few pennies, or in trade for an eBook. I won’t be able to do it because I still love marking in the margins, underlining with a nice pen, and dog-earring pages. But I’ll still be getting rid of most of them.

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