reading, without the book 04.28.2005, 1:58 PM
posted by ben vershbow
David Bell, a history professor at Johns Hopkins, has written a smart, well-reasoned article for The New Republic entitled "The Bookless Future," in which he ponders the changing nature of reading, writing and research in a digital world. Professor Bell and The New Republic have kindly allowed us to reproduce the article in TK3, an e-document reader. Our hope is that it will serve as a springboard for wider discussion, both of the article, and of what is needed to create the optimal electronic reading environment. The downloads are below, followed by some initial thoughts on Bell's piece. We would love to hear people's reactions..
First Download and Install the TK3 Reader
- TK3 Reader Installer WINDOWS
- TK3 Reader Installer MAC OSX (if using Internet Explorer, hold down the option-key when downloading for the Mac)
Then Download "The Bookless Future"
(when you've unzipped the book, you should be able to open it by double-clicking on its icon)
In Bell's view, the big gains so far have been in the realm of research. "Today, a scholar in South Dakota, or Shanghai, or Albania--anywhere on earth with an Internet connection--has a research library at her fingertips." A democratization has taken place, comparable only to the change unleashed by the printing press. The ease and speed of searching, comparing, and collating digital documents is similarly a great boon to scholars and students. The benefits afforded by new reading modes far outnumber the losses that opponents of the electronic book frequently lament - the tactile pleasures, the smell of musty bindings, the social environment of bookstores, the art of typography.
This will remain controversial territory for quite some time, but Bell manages to strike the right balance:
What really matters, particularly at this early stage, is not to damn or to praise the eclipse of the paper book or the digital complication of its future, but to ensure that it happens in the right way, and to minimize the risks.
Bell is also thinking what this means for writing. He recognizes the possibilities for new kinds of expression and argumentation that are only possible in the multimedia, not-exclusively-linear, environment of the computer. He cites a few examples in the Gutenberg-e series. But Bell's enthusiasm is mixed with concern for how we are being affected as readers. First there is the way we absorb content, which has been entirely transformed by hypertext and search - the "browsing" ethos. Bell warns:
Reading in this strategic, targeted manner can feel empowering. Instead of surrendering to the organizing logic of the book you are reading, you can approach it with your own questions and glean precisely what you want from it. You are the master, not some dead author. And this is precisely where the greatest dangers lie, because when reading, you should not be the master. Information is not knowledge; searching is not reading; and surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns.
Questions of form are no less important. Bell reminds us that the digital revolution, unlike the print revolution, is not just about the book. Moveable type may have transformed the means of production for books. But in form, they remained basically the same, and were no less "readable" than their hand-copied forebears. This is not the case with digital books. Until personal computers, and later, the web, it was never assumed that we would do any serious reading on screens. But as technology advanced, we learned that computers were more than just computational tools. A big lesson of the digital revolution is that since all media can be equalized as ones and zeros, then it follows that all media can converge and dance together in a single space. The digital revolution is about this convergence. Text is just one part of it, and so far computers have proven themselves better at handling rich media like graphics, film and sound than at providing satisfactory conditions for sustained reading. This boils down to a few, very simple reasons:
1. Screen display technology is poor - it hurts the eyes, requires large amounts of energy, and cannot be read in sunlight or other such ambient light settings. Progress is being made with the development of electronic ink and cholesteric displays, and Bell hopes that these improvements will deliver us from the headache of liquid crystal displays.
2. Most electronic documents are read in vertical scrolling fields. This is probably descended from the first computer terminal reading which consisted of long batches of code, best read in a scroll, or spit out on long rolls of paper. Horizontal paging keeps words and lines in a fixed position and makes for much easier reading. But you rarely find this today. A good example is the website of the International Herald Tribune. It seems like a no-brainer that screen-based documents should be laid out in this way.
3. And finally, the device is too awkward - heavy, fragile, expensive, and overheated.
Bell recognizes these points, but overemphasizes the need for a device that is tailored exclusively for screen-reading (though he does acknowledge that it would require web-browsing capabilities). One of the reasons book reading devices have consistently failed to catch on is that they are too specialized. In digital space, media can dance together, and there is no reason to corral them off into distinct zones. People are already reading books and other documents on their PDAs, and even their cell phones (check out thread, "the ideal device"). This is not because they offer an ideal reading environment, but because they are indispensable - gadgets that you always have with you. As a consequence, people feel compelled to cram in as many uses as possible. By this logic, the cell phone and the laptop seemed destined to combine. It may end up being something roughly the size of a trade paperback - hold it vertically to read a text, or flip it on its side to watch a widescreen film or play a video game. As with media, it seems inevitable that devices, too, will eventually converge.
Scott on April 29, 2005 1:04 PM:
Very interesting stuff. Thanks for pinning down that TNR article.
One of the things I reacted to here was Bell's insistence that "when reading, you should not be the master. Information is not knowledge; searching is not reading; and surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns."
I agree with this, but I feel like this is undermined on litblogs. The temptation to skim or click around is huge and I think that people feel much less like they are surrending to authority when reading a blog than when reading a book.
To a certain extent, this is good because I don't think blogs are as authoritative as books. However, I think that as e-books and online searching of books becomes more refined and commonplace, the authority Bell speaks of will become undermined by our experiences interacting with blogs.
dave munger on April 29, 2005 2:46 PM:
I think Bell's key points come at the end of the article, when he discusses how e-books might change reading. There was a great analogy to Gutenberg, where books previously were used for repeated reading and study, but after Gutenberg people tended to acquire many books and read broadly. But this is not to say that many people don't read and study in much the same way they did before Gutenberg. Besides the obvious religious examples, think of Tolkein fanatics.
I think something like that is very likely to happen with e-texts. Some of the old ways of reading will be preserved, but reading will also be fundamentally changed. Will a monograph remain a static tome, or will it represent the corpus of a life's work, ever changing and adapting as its author's own views change?
I find this to be a very exciting time to be writing books. Whatever I write is not only a work in itself, but also in some other ways a defense of the medium. I think this tension drives me to write more effectively, which is good for me, and good for books.
Christine Anderson on May 2, 2005 5:03 PM:
I've been working on a project on missing information..on websites, in histories, disappearing documents, twisted information. I've found that even places like the memoryhole have URLs to sites that no longer exist. Who will be the guardian of the integrity of information? Maybe I don't understand the process, but if a government decides that information on the web no longer is to be allowed to exist, who will know it is gone? We do not currently know what is gone, and much is disappearing. If material is hacked in e-texts (can this be done), who will be watching the alteration. Who will guard the existence of the original? I know that there is some web archiving, but I also know that more than 6000 documents are thought to have been purged from government websites...and some of the sites themselves. If a book disappears from a library, we usually know where other copies may be. What happens in the case of an e-text? Can it be changed for propaganda purposes, the way the US government is allowing movies to be changed right now, without permission of the producers/owners?
Can anyone answer these questions from an old librarian who is worried about history and her country?
Gary Frost on May 3, 2005 7:43 PM:
The "bookless future" in the David A. Bell essay will be realized when scholarship finds itself incapable of producing persistent publications. It must be apparent that the three examples of on-line research in the essay describe access in "two minutes", "in less than a minute" and in a "few clicks" to call up texts that have persisted in print for over two centuries. So which attribute; the quick access or the long persistence is more crucial for the scholar? Scholarship must depend upon text transmission that is, by default, persistent. Electronic publication does not yet assure persistence.
The essay does project the importance of changing reading behaviors and the needed versatility of the scholar's reading skill. I feel that this premise is not emphasized enough. Who cares how nearly book-like the hand held reading device becomes, if the on-line reading skill is fundamentally different from classical parent modes of reading? Screen based reading now compiles elements of the verbal/visual mode, the written mode and the print mode of expression, simultaneously mimicking and mixing the classical formats in a single screen presentation. Add to this the layers and branching options for the reading pathway. Then add to all this, keyword searching and the real possibility of wandering off. Of course books have multiple readings too, but the reader is the interface.
One missed opportunity here is a better description of the emerging interactivity of print and screen reading. Search engines and data bases such as Google Print are moving quickly to interplay screen queries with print results, but the more scholarly path from print to screen is still mysterious. The search engines mine information, but only a librarian or scholar can build coherent collections and effectively follow the implications of books shelved or positioned together. Between each shelved book is another latent book and these multiple arrangements of books prompted the real revolution of print over manuscript.
There are a number of other fundamental attributes of the book as an ergonomic device for comprehension and there are deeply embedded reasons why we chose to convey conceptual works in physical objects. In my view, the booke vs. ebook contest is an arbitrary dispute unless the contest clarifies the attributes of each used together.
dave munger on May 4, 2005 2:15 PM:
Christine, that's a great question. Of course, we can change books now, but it requires a lot more effort and expense, and there's no assurance that the old, unmodified books will be destroyed.
Interestingly, here's a case where DRM might not be such a bad thing. I've sometimes thought that the ultimate DRM would be for e-texts to be distributed physically: some kind of physical computer chip that you plug into your computer. This device, aside from preventing illicit duplication of a text, might also ensure the document's integrity.
With online documents, I suspect libraries might need to take the lead in preservation. This may be a new role for libraries in the future: keeping digital snapshots of online documents so that if something gets deleted from the "official" record, there is still a record of it.