Monday, June 14, 2010

Long live the book

I've been having an e-mail conversation with a colleague about what one of my clients referred to as "changes" in the publishing field. My colleague commented wryly that "going through some changes" was about the mildest way she'd ever heard it put; the way one of the higher-ups at her company phrased it was, "The book is dead." I disputed this idea, pointing out that people often predict the death of an old technology when a new one shows up on the scene (e.g., TV versus radio), but it doesn't always work out that way. However, my curiosity was piqued, so I typed the phrase "the book is dead" into Google to see what the voices of the Internet had to say on this subject.

Somewhere on the first page of hits, I turned up an article called, "The book is dead. Long live the book." It's an examination of the limitations of the book form, and quite interesting in its own right, but what really caught my interest were the comments. It's long been my observation that even on sites where the content itself is thoughtful, well written, and properly punctuated (e.g., the blogs associated with the New York Times), many, if not most, of the comments tend to be sloppily written. So I was truly impressed to find that the readers of this site, almost without exception, had actually organized their thoughts and written out focused, coherent arguments—in complete sentences, no less. One comment that particularly struck me came from a reader with the handle "Suebob":
I can buy a used book at a garage sale for 25 cents. I can throw it in my purse. I can spill coffee on it. I can take it into the bathtub, read it in bed, take it camping, on an airplane. I can pass it on to friends easily. I can bookmark pages and go back to them in one second. I can scribble notes on the pages. Highlight.

The book may take me 10 hours to read. Where else can I get so much value for 2.5 cents an hour?
This got me thinking: in ecofrugal terms, how does the book compare to electronic texts?

As Suebob notes, a secondhand book can give a lot of value in terms of hours of entertainment per dollar spent. But then again, if you're already paying a fixed monthly fee for Internet access, everything you read online is essentially free—or at least already paid for. On the other hand, you do need a source of electricity to read anything in an electronic form. But how does the environmental cost of that electricity compare to the cost of the trees harvested, mulched, and milled to produce the paper for a printed book? (Cartoonist Signe Wilkinson raised this same issue in a cartoon about the iPad.) I don't think I have enough information to answer that question; there are just too many variables. For example, is the book being read at night by electric light? If so, are the bulbs CFLs or incandescents? What if the publisher used recycled paper? What about the power used to produce that paper? What about the gas used by the trucks that delivered the books to the bookstore? There's no way to account for everything.

Pretty much the only factor in the ecofrugal equation that we can nail down is the cost of the text itself. And even that can be tricky. For example, if you buy yourself a Kindle, how do you factor that expense into the cost of the books you read on it? Do you work out how much you spent over the course of a year on the Kindle and e-books for it, and then compare that with the cost of buying the same books at a store? But would you have bought them in hardcover or paperback? What if you'd taken some of them out of the library instead?

For me, the bottom line is that the bottom line is too hard to calculate. So when it comes to reading, I tend to make my decisions based on more emotional factors. And for visceral pleasure, the book-as-book tends to win for me, hands down. As Suebob says, the physical advantages of a book—carrying it anywhere, reading it in bed, marking the pages—are unmatched by any electronic format out there (at least at present). Case in point: back when Brian and I were on our Jeeves-and-Wooster kick a year or so ago, I took the first few volumes out of the library and read them aloud to him. When we'd exhausted the library's supply, I turned to Project Gutenberg and found several more titles online, so I tried reading them aloud in the same way. We got through them, but it was awkward. If I wanted to read to him while he was doing something else, such as cooking, I had to haul his laptop into the kitchen, pull up the book on the screen, and scroll through the document as I read, trying not to lose my place when I paged down and taking care all the time to avoid spilling anything on the keyboard. It just wasn't the same.

And as Buzzmachine reader Steve Thomas pointed out, print has its advantages for less enjoyable books as well:
I will add, in the defence of books, that there’s one advantage over ebooks — when they turn out to be crap, you can throw them at the wall. Very satisfying.
You can even do worse to them than that, as a recent XKCD cartoon points out.
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