The future of books : LUSENET : whim & vinegar : One Thread

Peter (of started a discussion on books which mutated and grew into a discussion of why we like physical books, the future of books, and the differences between books and electronic books (e-books). I'd like to continue that here. What do you see as the future of books and the book industry? Why do you like physical, printed, words-on-paper books? Why do you like e-books? How will our methods of communication and exchange of ideas change with the advent, wider acceptance, and wider availability of technology? Please share your thoughts.

-- Jen Kitchen (, September 27, 1999


I think it's probably possible to come up with a page-turning mechanism of some sort for an e-book, but it might be prohibitively expensive. If you had a book with "pages" that were some sort of simple display panel, you could populate pages with content until you had "printed" the whole book. The downside is that you would have a lot of blank pages, and that you might have to have more than one size of e-book. Also, you'd lose the portability that is one of the advantages of an e-book - your pages would probably be heavy at first.

Hmm. Are the things we like about p-books (I like that, Lindsay) impossible to duplicate in e-books, and vice-versa? Can we duplicate them without comprimising the advantages of each type of book? Is "p-" the next big prefix, to differentiate between physical and electronic? :)

-- Jen Kitchen (, September 28, 1999.

I can conceive of a the perfect e-book, but it turns out to be just like a paper book, but I can download the content I want into it. However, the problem is that how do you deal with the difference between your slim volume of poetry and your airport blockbuster, your Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and your Shorter OED? You cant do this and maintain a physical page turning interface. Well OK, I just thought of a way that you might be able to reuse pages in some way, but then you cant tell how far you are through the book at a glance - something I do very frequently. Oh, and you cant let the e-book fall open at your favourite part - as many of my recipe books do.

As I said in the log today - I'm a luddite technophile. If I had the resources I would probably have bought and played with one of the e-book systems by now, but I don't and it is unlikely that I ever will. Ultimately e-books and p-books will coexist just like photography and painting. Society has a great ability to absorb new technologies and adapt them not itself.

-- Lindsay Marshall (, September 28, 1999.

Physical books join the content and the interface to it in a single, elegant unit (as Lindsay mentioned). Not only do they store and present information, they also symbolize it. (Consider that someone with a large library is considered learned.)

One big problem with books is that they're bulky! Their size and shape and other qualities are part of their mystique, but is it part of their essence? I guess that's what started the discussion. I suppose it depends on the particular book and the particular reader.

Another problem is random access: books have a great interface if all you want is sequential access to the sentences. Indexes and cross-references can help, but (as they saying goes) "you can't grep a dead tree". E-books let you find specific words and phrases. That's especially important when the books in question are reference manuals as opposed to narratives.

My feeling is that if you're talking about a specific book, most people would prefer a physical book. (Would you rather have a nice edition of _The Lord of the Rings_ on your shelf? Or on your hard drive?) But if you're talking about "books" in the aggregate sense, there is a growing sentiment in favor of electronic publication. (Would you rather have a 200lb printed set of encyclopedia? Or a single CD-ROM?)

One last point: what about a hybrid system? What if your local bookstore was just a big vending machine where you selected a title and put in some money, then it downloaded the book from the publisher and printed and bound the codex while you waited? Then, you'd get your physical book, but without a lot of the printing and shipping costs associated with physical books. Such systems are already in use for t

-- Drew Ivan (, September 28, 1999.

In all this talk about books, I've realized that I'm definitely the odd one out for caring only about the ideas contained in the text. Most of the books I own and love, it has nothing at all one whit to do with their physical form. The codex is merely the simplest most direct vessel for presenting ideas.

Thinking about the codex, and scrolls, and that thesis _Rethinking the Book_ that I pointed to on my site, has made me wonder about the bound nature of books. Scott McCloud, in a talk he gave about online comics at Web99, discusses how he is embracing the online medium because it allows him to break free of the bounds of the Page. His "My Obsession with Chess" is a perfect example--it's a long scrolling comic, about 30 feet in length when printed. He believes that the page, and the two types of containment it requires: 1) The right-most limit of the page, at which point the next bit of content is all the way at the left-most limit the next line down 2) The bottom-right of the page, where the next bit of content is on another surface has forced the form of comics to be highly broken up, with a cliffhanger on every page (or every two pages).

He discusses pre-Gutenberg "comics" and ways of presenting pictorial information, and one of the forms was a kind of accordion-fold book. This allows for the compactness of the codex bound-book, but also provides the freedom of the single-sheaf scroll, as you could have content across many "pages" that could all be seen at the same time.

I'm wondering why the accordion fold hasn't been used more in book publishing. It seems an elegant design solution.

-- Peter Merholz (, September 28, 1999.

People starting using codices because scrolls simply didn't work for large amounts of text. It is really hard to go back 20 pages on a scroll compared with a codex. Hence the overwhelming success of the form. Yes, the p-book format provides limits, but sometimes limits are good. Pictures are framed. To be practical you have to control the size of things - to be artistic (for want of a better word) you can do whatever you want. A 30ft scroll dictionary is no use to me. As a comic it may well be excellent. (BTW, I'd like to see you do a 30ft fully unrollable scroll with current e-book technology!)

I do believe the form matters, perhaps only for subliminal reasons though. There is a difference between reading a nice edition of a book and reading a dogeared paperback that has been dropped in the bath. Illustrated books are a case in point - think of Alice and think of Tenniel. Now think of other Alice illustrators? They are either Tenniel clones or instantly forgettable. (Why am I thinking of the Captain and Tenniel) (AArrgh, I typed Caption and Tenniel!!!). Arthur Ransome's drawings for his books are much more apporopriate than those done by others and enhance the reading experience.


-- Lindsay Marshall (, September 28, 1999.

As long as we're thinking of illustrations, let's think of Edward Gorey. Consider his alphabet books, where each page of the codex tells a tiny story in itself. The page-by-page nature of the codex is part of the infrastructure of the story.

Consider, on the other hand, the opening credits of _Mystery!_, also by EG. On TV, he sort of uses animation: certain elements move but others don't. He also uses horizontal and vertical scrolling -- which I guess should be called "panning" if it's on TV. In this case, his medium has again defined the way the work is structured.

So, what would he do if he were writing an eBook? I guess it would depend on the specific capabilities of the hardware, but I'll bet whatever the capabilities were, they'd somehow impact the work as a whole.

As eBooks come of age and material is written FOR eBooks rather than ported to them, I think we'll see how the form factor of the book has an impact on the

-- Drew Ivan (, September 28, 1999.

...speaking of content following form, why do the last few words of my posts here get cut off? Is there a length limit?

-- Drew Ivan (, September 28, 1999.

Ah, Gorey is wonderful. I wonder how he would deal with an e-book - as you say, I bet it would be differently to other media. Is this the point? e-books are in fact something different and need to be treated differently? Are we wasting our time talking about them, when what we have to do is site and wait until they get fully developed and see what happens? A bit like the movies getting sound and then colour.

Just a thought


-- Lindsay Marshall (, September 29, 1999.

you might enjoy this week's New Yorker (10.4.99), which is not one of their insufferable themed issues but is nevertheless all about books and the acts of reading, writing and selling them...

-- Judith (, September 29, 1999.

Paper books age. Having a favorite book and re-reading it years later solidifies the ol' memory two ways: 1)simply the fact that you still have the book involves reasons for keeping it, and 2)what were you thinking years ago and now while you're reading/re-reading. Currently, re-reading Tao of Physics (Fritjof Capra). A memory-over-time kind of thing...seeing if you're on track, changing, ect. Also, you can SHOW something in print to someone (arguement or agree- ment) anywhere one can take a book...a lot more places than an e-book.

-- Randall Olson (, September 30, 1999.

On the subject of memories you should read Ex Libris by (mumble mumble) which is a collection of essays about reading. It talks about amalgamating her and her husbands libraries and deciding whose copy to throw away... (The reference is in my reading list somewhere and Ed of vacumm mentioned it recently too)

-- Lindsay Marshall (, September 30, 1999.

$329 for an e-book reader. And you have to buy the books as well. There is no future in that. If e-books are to take off you have to get the reader free when you buy the first book - that's how mobile phones have taken off.

Here's what to do - start an e-book club where you agree to taking a cartain number of e-books, and as part of joining you get the reader. Membership does not confer ownership of the reader hwoever (just like the mobile phone model, at least in the UK) so you have to hand it hback if you terminate the deal. I suppose after some period of time depreciation sets in and you get to keep the device, but that is not instantaneous of course. Why aren't Rocket doing this already?


-- Lindsay Marshall (, September 30, 1999.

I'm swamped at work today (sadly, because I've got a lot to say :) but here's a few pointers of interest:

EveryBook - I read their FAQ last night, and it raised a few questions for me. More on that later here and/or in the blog.

Book on the Bookshelf, Henry Petroski A brand new book on the evolution of books and bookshelves. I've heard Petroski is a lousy writer (you know who you are :) but it might be worth a gander if you get it from the library

Writer's Digest's latest issue is a special one on writing for the web. Haven't read the whole thing so far, but it looks interesting.

I also picked up the latest Atlantic Monthly which has a Peter Drucker article titled "Beyond the Information Revolution" and a copy (on clearance :) of _How To Read a Book_ by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren.

BTW, Lindsay, the book you were thinking of before is _Ex Libris : Confessions of a Common Reader_ by Anne Fadiman.

- Jen

-- Jen Kitchen (, September 30, 1999.

I see Peter's point that "the ideas contained in the text matter," but I also still see the physical book as a design thing that can limit or help access. In college, I used Norton Critical editions when reading old novels, because they're very well produced and contain helpful footnotes and essays and such. When I read Middlemarch, I hit a snag. They'd used some old plates for their text, plates that featured what I called the "cram the letters together as tightly as you can" typeface. I literally (if you'll pardon the expression) could not get myself the read the thing -- that typeface killed all interest in the text and any ideas therein. I had to buy another copy, with a different typeface, just to finish reading the book.

E-books require me to sit at the computer to read. I hate that. I have to sit in my comfortable attic, or on the sunporch, or on the back deck, or lying on the sofa, to read. I have to be able to slouch, or not slouch, or otherwise change positions every five or ten minutes. I have a very nice IBM Thinkpad computer here, but even when running on battery it doesn't adjust to constant slouching or unslouching. Plus which, the manual informs me that if you leave it on your lap too long it might burn you. Ay-yi-yi. Even the Norton Critical Middlemarch didn't try to injure me . . . .

Yeah, I'm attracted by the search capabilities of e-books, or the ease of quoting or stuff like that, but for pure enjoyment I still prefer to be crouched at the top of the attic stairs enjoying my latest Angela Thirkell acquisition.

I can perhaps see a future where they will make the sort of e-books that I can stuff into my purse and take anywhere. *That* I might be interested in. At present though, I'm not interested in anything that makes me spend yet more time at my desk.

-- Janet Lynne Phelan (, September 30, 1999.

On Petroski: He is not a bad writer! The Pencil is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. He does have some langours at times (his collection of essays is fairly dull), but his books really are essential reading if you are interested in engineering of any kind (even word engineering). That being said, I haven't read the bookshelf book yet - I'm trying to get the Lit&phil to buy it so I can read it there.

-- Lindsay Marshall (, October 01, 1999.

Petroski is *too* a bad writer.

Which is a problem, because he picks such great subjects. _The Evolution of Useful Things_ and _Invention by Design_ contain fascinating topics, and it speaks to Henry's poor writing abilities that it was a pain to dig through these books. I mean, I'm about as primed an audience as anyone on the topic of evolution and complex design.

All that said, I'll have to purchase his book on the book because, well, because of all that's gone on here and in my blog.

-- Peter Merholz (, October 01, 1999.

I know I'm entering the conversation late, but ...

For me, the appeal of the printed, bound book is a confection of lots of things: the solid mushy feel as you cradle it in your hand, the printed book's higher portability factor (it stands up to adverse conditions, whether it be falling snowflakes or dropping it in a bathtub, much better - and if it is ruined, I only have to replace the book, not the book and the reader.), the printed book's openness to being amended with a human record of sorts (my grandmother annotates books, folds in clippings, or writes comments on the back flap; used books feature interesting jottings and inscriptions), the fact that it supports my comfort much better while reading it, and there's something about the crisp black on a slight-textured white page that feels highly comfortable to me (cultural training, probably).

I should reveal my biases: I've made books, including typesetting and binding them. I spend at least 12-14 hours a day staring at a computer screen, and really value my time when I'm not staring at the screen. I'd probably buy/use eBooks for reference materials primarily - a funky little grammar book, a guide to javascript, a book of quotes, perhaps a book of poems, or short essays at the most. eBooks - by the very dint of being electronic - make me want to hurry up, be expeditious, get things done. When I read for pleasure, I luxuriate in it. My few experiences with eBooks didn't allow me to luxuriate in the book.

-- Julia Hayden (, October 01, 1999.

One great thing about books is that they are fairly immutable. I have a really cheesy book called _Discotheque Dances by Dick Blake_ (c) 1965. I got it really cheap at a library sale. It's a teriffic snapshot of disco's early days. The folks in these photos ought to be embarassed. It's a hoot!

If this had been an eBook, I imagine it would have been updated "to keep it current", but then we would have lost a valuable artifact documenting life in the late 60s.

Remember _1984_? They had an entire "Ministry of Truth" dedicated to "updating" newspaper articles to avoid embarassment. Would eBooks, with their inherent updatability, lead to such a situation? Would embarassing slices of history such as _Discotheque Dances_ get overwritten with more current information?

Maybe not to the extent in _1984_, but it's something to think about.

While we're on the subject of dystopian fiction, _Farenheit 451_ comes to mind. If books were no longer made from dead trees, how would we burn

-- Drew Ivan (, October 01, 1999.

dang it! it cut off the end of my post again.

it should read " would we burn them? ;)"

-- Drew Ivan (, October 01, 1999.

[btw, the . in front of my email is so my responses get included at the bottom]

I had lots to say today, but none on books! :) I did get a chance this afternoon to go through the Everybook FAQ in depth, as well as read bits of the New Yorker, particular a nifty article on collaborative filtering and the death of the blockbuster. Let me throw out some quick thoughts/questions here:

Businesses possibly affected by eBooks: Large print publishing companies (flexible fonts!) Book of the Month clubs (they would need to reinvent themselves) Cover artists

Thinhs eBooks can do that pBook can't: - Change fonts - Be networked (orchestras and sheet music, college classes) - Include aroma generator (book sniffing! :) - seriously, though, the scent of food in a cookbook, or perfume in a romance - Be updated without printing a whole new edition - books can't be lost - you're buying a license to the information, not a physical object

Concerns - self-publishing becomes too expensive - no serendipity from coming across books in store

From the New Yorker article: "infomediaries" [_Net Worth_, John Hagel+Marc Singer] brokers who will handle our preference information - collaborative filtering to sell us on books. (see

That's some quick stuff I just wanted to throw out there. More on the blog this weekend when I hopefully will have more time on my hands!

- Jen

P.S. Drew, try hitting return twice after your last line and see if that helps...

-- Jen Kitchen (, October 01, 1999.

I'm with Peter on Petroski, but rather enjoyed Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, , in which appears a wonderful description of a 10th century sheikh and his portable library - 200,000 books on 400 camels...

-- judith (, October 04, 1999.

that last post didn't like my Manguel url... here it is again:

-- judith (, October 04, 1999.

i'm about half way through Petroski's book on the bookshelf, and i'm going to take the middle road. he's not so horrible that i've had to put it down, but i will admit to falling asleep over certain chapters.

-- brigitte eaton (, October 04, 1999.

Notice that I didn't say that petroski was a good writer, I just said he wasn't a bad writer. He picks great subjects to write about, and, for instance, his discussion on the difference between craft, engineering and science is one of the most readable I have found.

I didn't get along with the History of Reading - I just got bogged down in it and gave up.


-- Lindsay Marshall (, October 06, 1999.

I just posted an in-depth look at the Everybook FAQ which has a lot of commentary on the future of eBooks. For the direct folks, it's at or you can just go to the blog at

In short, I think the success of eBooks will depend on open standards - not just for portability, but because of censorship issues as well. I also think that the number one thing that will make eBooks a success, the biggest difference between them and pBooks, is the ability to network them - not just networking eBooks to each other, but networking content for a single eBook user. There's more on this in my piece. Hope you read and enjoy it! - Jen

-- Jen Kitchen (, October 06, 1999.

I just started on Jen's FAQ commentary and hadn't read the Everybook FAQ before. eBooks reduce pollution? What utter utter nonsense! The construction of electronic equipment and the generation of the electricity that it needs is enormously polluting! And then a pre-loaded bible? That's not just stupid, it's offensive. Why cant I have a choice of what is preloaded?

WRT updates - I dont want overwriting updates, I want to see what has actually changed so that I know if I am affected, so change bars have to be automatic and perhaps the old version has to be cached - after all I've paid for it! There appears to be no mention of backup and it isn't clear how you reload previously read books.

And it's huge and expensive. The big mistake all these people are making is that they are trying to replicate the codex experience. Wrong. an eBook should be a scroll - a very thin screen that can be rolled up into something the size of a pen. The electronic guts are in the pen body. This is easy to carry and convenient.

My conclusion : Everybook will either never appear or will sink without trace.


-- Lindsay Marshall (, October 07, 1999.

I just read Peter's quote of John Updike, I like the notion of "material souvenir". Along those lines as well:

It seems most people extend or enhance their own image through their "stuff." What kind of couch you own, where you put the TV in your house, what sorts of paintings are on your wall, all advertise to visitors what kind of person you are. That's how I am with books. I'm very selective about what books I buy; they need to be valuable resources or sources of pleasure that I can return to again and again. But they have another use: they can immediately tell a visitor to my home what kind of person I am--what kinds of things I like, whether I'm a "deep thinker," what subjects and activities are important to me. Whether it's a good thing or not, I have the most prominent shelf in my living room stocked with the books I think will give the best indication of who I am. (I must point out that I don't buy books just to make an impression; I have to love them before I'll buy them.) I've always thought, if someone visiting my house takes a keen interest in those books, maybe picks some out and starts looking at them, that person will be my best friend.

Not only are old-fashioned, printed-paper books useful as material souvenirs, but as personal artifacts as well (much like Drew's disco book), revealing a person's history and personality in a scan of the bookshelf. That's something an electronic book will never do.

-- Dave Parker (, October 07, 1999.

There were two articles over the weekend in the UK papers (One of them in the Observer, the other in the Guardian or the Independent on Sunday) discussing the future of books. They both contained some useful points and lots of fatuous nonsense. This all seems to have been prompted by A MS announcement of readser software (not hardware) - anyone know anything about this? it sounds like Adobe Acrobat to me.


-- Lindsay Marshall (, October 18, 1999.

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