The future of books?

October 6, 2011 | By | 19 Replies More

I read an interesting article today by Salon contributor Paul Lafarge on Why the book’s future never happened. Lafarge was referring to hypertext fiction, a non-linear “literature” that apparently was ahead of its time. When technology caught up, the genre was OBE (overcome by events ) and made obsolete like a four track tape (my father had a player and about 15 tape…superseded almost immediately by the eight track) by the Internet. Or maybe not. Read the article and decide for yourself.

I investigated a little hypertext fiction and found it to be quite irritating. Perhaps it was only the non-linearity … when I read fiction, I like it to flow (do not confuse “flow” with “stream of consciousness”). But I don’t think so. The links in the examples I saw seemed to be only links for the sake of linking…adding no value to the story, no continuation of the context. Bizarre plot devices are usually not received well anyway, so my annoyance with the hypertext genre of fiction is not surprising. I did find some of the comments to Lafarge’s article informative, so I encourage you to drill down.

I don’t know if hypertext is the future of fiction, but electronic books seem to be. I love printed books – clearly, as I/we own more than 5500 of them. But I recently (late to the game as always) inherited my wife’s iPad after she bought an iPad 2 and have discovered the convenience of electronic books. I read a few on my iPhone, but the seven or so page flicks to read a single page of printed text tends to tedium. A few folks I know have Kindles or Nooks that they like (my wife uses the Kindle app on her iPad), but I’m pleased to have an ebook reader and the other features of the tablet.  I can take a few moments at any point of the day to read a couple of pages or sit down and read an entire book without having to carry the hard copy…unless I want to. I miss Borders, and hope other chains don’t die, but I’m liking the technological alternative.

Image by Erich Vieth


I find one feature of the ebook reader I’ve settled on particularly useful. When I read a book to learn something, I like to make notes but too often never go back to them, as I’m reading new books and making more notes. With the electronic version, I can highlight the text or drop a bookmark and the reader keeps track of them for me. I’ve reloaded a couple of books I deleted after reading when I discovered that…embarrassing, as I’m usually pretty savvy with those things, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I could use the technology to even more of my advantage.

So, I’m not going to call myself a convert because I will always treasure the feel of paper in hand, but I foresee continuing to enjoy the benefits of electronic versions of books. I just wish my various apps I like to use could each see the others’ books. I like the some of the features of one, some of another, but iTunes and the brilliance (snort) of the iOS folks forces me to load multiple copies of a book to each app if I want to read it in more than one. Not the only flaw that annoys me, but one that pertains to this post…

Happy reading. However you manage it.

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Category: Reading - Books and Magazines

About the Author ()

Jim is a husband of more than 27 years, father of four home-schooled sons (26, 23, 16 and 14), engineer delighting in virtually all things technical, with more than a passing interest in history, religions, arts, most sciences (particularly physics) and skepticism.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Jim: I read quite a bit on a computer screen, but when I REALLY want to absorb material, there is no substitute for reading paper, meaning that I’m touching it and writing lots of marginalia (I read almost entirely non-fiction). Did you have that experience previously and are you overcoming it? Mind you, I’m not anti-gadget. I use more gadgets than more, and I love the portability of digital information.

    Also, did you see this article in the Economist, where the author points out several serious problems with e-books? http://www.economist.com/node/21528611

    • Jim Razinha says:

      I grew Up with an almost religious appreciation of books. Dog-eared pages turned my stomach (and imagine how hard it was to highlight I college!) Sticky notes and a myriad of ripped shreds of paper used as bookmarks saved my anguish.

      Then I found a book (which sadly I do not own…yet) called “Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books” by a Dr. H. Jackson that helped me make the mental leap and go ahead and actually write in books!. I took it slow at first, using those couple of blank, or nearly blank pages at the back to create my own table of contents. Then I wrote in the margins. Today, I do all of the above and more. Saw this article in the NY Times bemoaning the loss of marginalia (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/21/books/21margin.html) and agree.

      I’m a page flipper…going back to previous sections to review, confirm, correct info in my head. And I am a huge fan of footnotes – two bookmarks to help the jumps. That part of ebooks I haven’t figured out. I can highlight and make notes with the readers, but those are lost with the deletion of the app/book/data, so are a temporary substitute for the real thing at best. I am just adding to the toolbox…the kinks aren’t worked out yet.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Jim: Speaking of marginalia, I do a lot of it when I read cognitive science books. For example, I’m reading an extraordinary book by Mark Johnson at the moment: The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. This is a clearly written head-twisting book that addresses many of the gnawing questions I’ve had for YEARS. Johnson cross-cuts much that has come before him and it is exciting reading for me. Here’s the cover:

    Here’s my marginalia. I have a system that allows me to read it the SECOND time quite quickly to pick out the things that I found interesting the first time. Reading this page the first time took a minute or two. When scanning it the second time, it will take 10 seconds to find what I thought was important.

    Now, this is what really helps me to absorb and write about a book: I create my personal table of contents in the first few blank pages of the book:

    This takes considerable time, but when I find a book that I know I will draw upon later, it is indispensable. I can quickly get where I want to go (as long as I can read my writing), and taking the time to write these notes allows me to absorb the material much better than merely reading it. I assume its the multi-modal learning enhancement that does the trick: I’m reading, but also writing, but also requiring myself to restate my understanding of what I’ve read.

    These are my secrets for defacing a book in a way that the nuns who taught me in grade school would not have liked.

    Bottom line for me, if I lost my 500 favorite copies of books, an immense amount of my labor would be also lost. Thus, I never (really, truly almost never) lend out copies of my books that I’ve annotated.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      Curious the convergence of independent discovery…my custom table of contents is pretty much identical in form to yours.

      I read a few years ago about a high school (California?) that was issuing tablets with all the textbooks for the year. Billed as a cost saving measure, my immediate question was of how to address the “flipping” problem. People learn in different ways and the electronic media are less flexible than print for accommodating those differences.

      You know that one big factor in human cognition that AI hasn’t worked out yet is our ability to resolve so much from so little. I may remember something about XX a few pages or even chapters earlier, but not exactly where, and yet flipping back through can find it (sometimes) relatively easily, often by just recognizing that it was on the right page about 3/4 down, or somewhere in e middle of a paragraph on the top of a page. Electronic searches may be faster at finding information…but only if they work with fuzzy algorithms. If I think “George Carlin said something about toilets being something only part of the population if familiar with”, the algorithm might be hard pressed to find “urinals are 50% universal”.

      One of the tools I’m experimenting with is documenting my notes electronically so that I can more easily pull up the info when I want to use it. It may be a fad or a legitimate useful tool. With as much reading as I do, it can’t do much worse to help track the nuggets that get pushed out by new data than my current methods.

      Remind me some time to tell you about the Charlotte Mason method of learning. Restating in your own words is key.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Jim: I’m tantalized with the new electronic readers. I’ll eventually jump in, but you raised another thing that seems useful to me about paper. If I’m looking through a book for a passage, I can often remember whether it was on the right versus left side page, and I can often remember whether it was on the top, middle or bottom of the page. This aids me in tracking it down. None of this holds a candle to the ability to copy the passage and place it in one’s own electronic annotations for that book. If that can be done on the new readers, if one can add one’s own annotations to those excerpts and if ones excerpts can be saved over to a PC for easy backup in one place, it would make the e-readers that don’t incur a monthly fee irresistible.

      So please do tell us about Charlotte Mason . . .

    • I still can’t write in a book. If I need to make notes, I do it separately. One thing that always puts me off a read is to get a used book that has been highlighted or underlined. I want to make up my own mind what bits are important and the presence of such notations forces me to pay attention to someone else’s choices. Gimme a clean page.

      Fortunately, I have an elephant’s memory. (or used to…)

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I don’t have an elephant’s memory and I don’t plan on letting go of my technical non-fiction books, not until someone tears them from my cold dead fingers. Or something like that.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I have never been one to make notes in the margins of books, so I took to the ebook readers earlier than most. Too me, the major advantage is that it saves a lot of space. I can carry an entire referenc library in my pocket.

    In my situation, there is another advantage. As I have noted from time to time, my older son is autistic. When bored or in a noisy environment, he will tear a piece of paper from the nearest source available, fold the piece into s narrow point and brush his palm or lips with the paper. The psychiatrists refer to this as stemming, and helps him to ingore distractions, but even with our best efforts to give him junk mail or index cards to tear, he still rips parts of pages from books.

    There are trade offs with ebooks, the most obvious one being the need for an electronic reader device. For most uses, I prefer the electronic paper display e readers because they impressively low power consumption and the sunlight readable display. There is a color technology readable in direct sunlight, but it is not favored in multipurpose devices such as tablet computers.

    For many years, the biggest thing holding e publishing back was the publishing industry. Too many DRM’d proprietary forms, combined with greedy publishers who often wanted to charge $30 for an electronic DRM encumbered copy of a public domain book, held back the industry until Amazon, Sony and others started marketing multiformat readers that included web harvesting applications that allowed readers to create an up-to the minute personalized newspaper.

  4. Jim Razinha says:

    Mark, I don’t write often in a book, and then usually only on the back blank pages. I, too, am bothered by someone else’s highlights and underlines, but there are times when I am fascinated to see what someone else thought was important. I finished a book by Tom Peters last week that is covered in post-its. That’s still my preferred method of flagging things of note.

    Erich, I’m not a fan of single use electronic devices, or even primary use with a couple of extra features (like a calendar). I picked up Donald Norman’s “The Psychology of Everyday Things” following a reference in that Peters book and agree with what I’ve read so far on the problems of building too many features into whatever. The capability of a tablet to do what it does and function as a reader is attractive. I got a NY Times crossword puzzle electronic game as a gift and that’s all it did. I might still have it somewhere, but I don’t use it. The crossover of being able to pull quotes more easily without having to key them in manually is really helpful. Still, a flaw I’d like addressed is how to save the notes and highlights off the device…a semi-enduring corollary that still can’t compare to written notes.

    Niklaus, the DRM issue is still huge. A librarian friend is trying to work out how to implement ebooks in the system. Sadly, at least one company is pushing for limits to what it sells to libraries (i.e., good for only 25 checkouts.) The impression is that the company is trying to set up its own electronic library – with charges to rent the books. Another problem I have with the whole concept: I can loan or gift any hard copy I buy, but I can’t do the same for an electronic copy? That they want to charge full price for? But people still pay full price for NFL exhibition, um, pre-season games despite grumbling, so the market has the edge.

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Jim,
    The first EBook reader I owned was an RCA ebook reader. Theres were originally developed by a startup called Nuvomedia under the name Rocketbook. back in the late 90s. The rocket book was somewhat Apple Macintosh-centric, and included a software suite for managing ebook files and transferring to the reader. The software could aldo convert text and html files into the readers proprietary formats. (REB) files, allowing the owners to convert public domain books like the titles from project gutenburg at no expense.
    In the early 2000s Gemstar, the publisher of TV Guide bought out Nuvo media. the readers were manufactured by Philips/RCA and the books was to be provided by Gemstar. The reader received an update with more memory, a usb port and a smart media card slot. Genstar dropped support for html import from the manager software, and initially had aggrements for subscriptions to periodical. They also charged a minimum of $20 per title, mostly classics in the public domain, which was a major deal breaker for the target market, however, the Nuvo media software could be downloaded for converting text and html file to the reb format. around 2004, Gemstar offered an “upgraded” model that prevented all user generated files from loading to the reader, and pretty much killed to product. The original early RCA units, were not field upgradeable, however, open source software was developed that allowed owners to roll their own ebooks.
    Sony and Amazon, however, introduced readers and apparently learned from gemstars stupidity, and offered E-Paper display readers that could handle non DRMed open standard formats in addition to a proprietary DRM format to keep the publishers happy while allowing owners to add free public domain ebooks at no cost. Sony also would offer high quality ebooks of public domain works for as little as $3.
    I currently own a Sony E reader, which has the electronic paper display. I also habe an android tablet, but the Sony is much more like reading a book and easer on the eyes. Also the Sony can run for about a week on a singl charge, takes 30 minutes to full charge where the tablet runs about 10 hours on a charge must recharge over night.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Jim: Here’s something that haunts me about e-books. As things are now, there are many paper copies of books out there. If a regime decided that a book were dangerous, there’s little chance that that government could delete all copies of the book. But what if all of us start to depend on e-copies that can only be read by proprietary software? Then a censoring government need only force an adaptation of the reader software programs, thus barring the reading of any copies. If this sounds far fetched, consider how all of the telecoms have rolled over to allow the U.S. federal government to intercept all email and phone calls in the name of national security. https://www.eff.org/nsa/faq#2

    As far as the motive, consider this monument in Berlin, Germany:

    I personally viewed this monument this past summer. This monument is a window down into an underground room containing many empty bookshelves. When the Nazis took over, one of the first things they did was to burn “dangerous” books. Think how much easier it would have been for them to keep ideas from the people had the German people been highly dependent on the Internet.

    Therefore, I very much like the idea of electronic book readers, but I believe it should be coupled with the right of readers to keep backup copies of their books on their own local data storage, and the constant availability of software that would allow people to read their books, unconnected from any monitoring source that could tell who is reading what.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      I in no way advocate replacing print with digital for all the reasons you cite. As noted in one of my replies above, I take issue with the e-concepts as perpetrated by the industry: I can own a book, but not an ebook. With book ownership comes my right to keep, loan, gift, burn, neglect, mark, re-purpose (some amazing artists out there….), …

      Not so with electronic forms, and that is frustrating as well as saddening. But, there is a definite use for digital, to augment, but not replace printed material.

  7. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Erich,
    This is actually closer to reality than you may realize.
    http://www.lafkon.net/tc/

    Trusted Computing modules are already installed in most computers. In addition, many new computers are with UEFI which can be set to only allow digitally signed operating systems to use the hardware. Microsoft has announced that this signed boot feature must me enabled by default for hardware to receive their blessing in the form of a “Designed for Windows 8” sticker. This appears to be part of a strategy to effective outlaws open source operating systems.

  8. Jim Razinha says:

    Ultimate fail. Just upgraded my iPad to iOS5 and the brilliant software by Apple’s “engineers” wiped my backups I made just prior and during the upgrade. So it looks like I not only lost my work I did today, but all those highlights and notes on the ebooks. (I’m afraid to down-, er, upgrade my phone now.)

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Arrrghh. Attempted but failed progress hurts doubly. Did they warn that you’d be wiping the slate clean if you upgraded?

    • Jim Razinha says:

      Fortunately, by syncing the books from the phone the data was restored to the iServer in Cupertino and replicated back to the ipad. Only minor losses. Frustrating nonetheless. My migration to Windows 7 was actually simpler and glitch free (the first such of all the Windows upgrades).

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Jim:

    Here’s what I fear – our Corporate-Government deciding to send out a code that disables the ability to read materials we already possess. It’s already happened in the case of Amazon, who eventually saw the light. But maybe next time it might not have a happy ending. Ironic that 1984 was one of the books involved:

    On July 17, 2009, Amazon.com withdrew certain Kindle titles, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, from sale, refunded the cost to those who had purchased them, and remotely deleted these titles from purchasers’ devices after discovering that the publisher lacked rights to publish the titles in question.[92] Notes and annotations for the books made by users on their devices were left in a separate file, but “rendered useless” without the content they were directly linked to.[93][94] The move prompted outcry and comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four itself. In the novel, books, magazines and newspapers in public archives that contradict the ruling party are either edited long after being published or destroyed outright; the removed materials go “down the memory hole”, nickname for an incinerator chute.[95] Customers and commentators noted the resemblance to the censorship in the novel, and described Amazon’s action in Orwellian terms. Some critics also argued that the deletion violated the Kindle’s Terms of Service, which states in part:[96]
    “Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use.”
    Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener stated that the company is “… changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances.”[97] On July 23, 2009, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos posted an apology about the company’s handling of the matter on Amazon’s official Kindle forum. Bezos said the action was “stupid”, and that the executives at Amazon “deserve the criticism received.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazon_Kindle#Remote_content_removal

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