Books as conversation

I’m enjoying the conversation around the post I wrote about killing books to save them. Some bits, which include some clarifications:

Scott Karp:

There are times when we don’t want to be social, we don’t want interaction — we just want to focus. Sometimes I feel like reading online is giving me attention deficit disorder.

It’s true that a book is like a speech that can’t be interrupted, updated, or altered. But the medium of speech giving still persists after thousands of years because sometimes its useful to just sit and listen to one person’s ideas, to give them your full and undivided attention.

Good point, to which I replied in his comments:

Yes, without saying so (I should have), I concentrated more on nonfiction than fiction. And I’m not suggesting banning paper. But I would like choice. If I want to take something on a plane, paper is wonderful. But why not also have it available digitally so I can search it and such? And as for even fiction, there are benefits in enabling a community to gather around shared interests: We can find more of what we each like since we like the same stuff; we can discuss the work — but only if we feel like it; we can preserve it and share it past the remainder table. Yes, if I said that paper were bad, I’d be guilty of the sin I pin on others: caring about the medium rather than the substance. What I’m really arguing for is choice, flexibility, possibilities. And making paper the only choice — especially out of cultural snobbery about it — is a pity when there are new and wonderful options to be had, eh?

Steve Baker responds in the comments below and on his blog:

He has his points. But they’re based on a Web 2.0 orthodoxy that assumes two things, 1) that all of those qualities will be absolutely necessary and 2) that despite the advances of technology, books won’t be able to add new Web 2.0 features.

Steve edits me well. As I amended myself in the comment to Scott, above, I’m not condemning paper but I am asking for choices — the same choices I want now from newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV. Why not books?

Now, to quibble with some of his arguments. They assume that all of the meaningful conversation has to occur in the present, presumably with people plugged into the Internet. If you want to have a “conversation” with Cervantes or Plato, I’d take a book over any of the interactive tools they’re building at MIT or Disney. Books give you access to great minds of the past, and they do a better job than any other medium I know of transporting you to those times and places.

And again, I wasn’t clear enough. Yes, Plato is Plato and I’m not suggesting Wikiplato. But commentary can be good — and optional; see the Talmud. And while Plato lives through the ages, most books don’t. They die in a recycler’s vat.
Books do create conversations in our day and age. But most of them aren’t on the Internet. Ever heard of a book group?
They converstions are not on the internet because the book are not; there’s no permalink to act as a hub for that converstation. That’s what I want to see. And, Steve, I’ll be there will be a great worldwide conversation about your math book — as much from India and China, I’ll bet, as here. The internet will enable that. Sure, it’d be nice if you could all sign up on MeetUp and meet in a Jersey Starbucks. But I’ll bet you’ll enjoy the conversation from Bangalore, albeit virtually.

I wholeheartedly agree that most non-fiction books should be shorter, and many should have been written (or remained) as magazine stories. (What keeps me up at night is the fear that people will draw the same conclusion when my book comes out…) No argument about the gatekeeper’s whims. But here’s the important point. While gatekeepers publish lots of celebrity trash, me-too tomes, etc., they also publish good work. And if the trash is needed to finance the industry, so be it. From a reader’s perspective, only a fraction of a percent has to be great to justify a trip to the bookstore or the library. In that way, books are a little like blogs. And how do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find the good books? That’s where the Internet helps.

And, as always, Steve and I end up in agreement. Group hug.

Neville Hobson points to a report in the Telegraph that says test scores are raised more by investing in books over technology. I think it’s a red herring: Paper is cheaper and buying a computer will do you no more good than buying blank paper; it’s what’s on them that counts. He adds:

Does the UK research mean British schoolkids are stuck in a conventional learning pothole? It seems to me more to be about school teachers in a pothole rather than the pupils.

My daughter’s a school teacher who teaches primary school kids in the UK, and who lives on her laptop (ok, so she’s a bit of a geek). Perhaps she’s representative of the new wave of teachers, those of a younger generation who clearly understands the role of technology as a learning and educational tool.

Yet it looks as though it might still take a while before computers supplant books in schools.

James Robertson was all ready to put up his dukes and fight me until he saw the stat that the number of titles is declining and he said:

That gave me pause. Doc has written about how consolidation killed radio by making it universally bland; Dvorak has said the same about newspapers. I’ve generally liked the existence of big stores like Borders and B&N, simply because selection is better than it was at the tiny Waldenbooks that was the main bookstore where I grew up. However, we might be seeing the same thing in books that we see in radio and news: consolidation leading to a growing mass of same-ness.

I walked into the local Borders last night, in search of gift certificates. I should have taken a picture, because this point would be easier to illustrate that way. Right at the front, there’s a table filled with new arrivals, and “The DaVinci Code” is still prominent there. That’s not the weird part. The weird part is the next table, which is filled with books about “The DaVinci Code” – Which is a sign of the kind of growing blandness that killed radio, and is busily killing newspapers.

See also: Marc Orchant at ZD. Diane Ensey fisks my post but nicely (readers are polite). Tim O’Reilley complains about the Times cover treatment of Kelly’s story on digitizing books.

And read the comments on the post below; lots of good points.

: Well, my original post got Dugg to the home page but then got bounced, to my eternal shame. Comments here.

  • http://www.alistreview.com Diane Ensey

    There is a lot of tripe out there – including the books about the books that are about the Da Vinci code. What really concerns me is that if all the truly good writing goes strictly to technology-based mediums, how will children without access to technology read it?

    Our own (American) economically disadvantaged population is the very tip of the iceberg. Many charities send donated books to other countries.

    I’m still getting my head around the ramifications of declining books for the disadvantaged. Any input is appreciated!

  • Clinton

    Interesting, that point about “sameness” and “blandness” as deadly to a medium with books about books as an example. This is analagous to buzzmachine’s and almost every news source’s obsession with news sources. It all started with novelty as an aim and its all progressing towards insestuous echoes.

  • http://www.cincomsmalltalk.com/blog/blogView James Robertson
  • http://ben.casnocha.com Ben Casnocha

    Jeff — this is a good conversation. Check out a related conversation going on on my blog:

    http://ben.casnocha.com/2006/05/the_culture_of_.html

    It’s on the culture of indie bookstores. Indie bookstores are dying off — should we fear the “culture” that surrounds them will die off too?

  • http://blogspotting.net steve baker

    Jeff, I’ll certainly want the virtual conversation from India. But I’d like to have some face-to-face encounters there as well.
    By the way, I noticed in your first post that you face the prospect of writing a book with a certain dread. I’m betting that your book will be interactive throughout the entire process and will be a revelation for all, including you. One of my frustrations has been that my research has been a bit cloistered. I’m trying to figure out how to remedy that. You’ll have no such troubles.

  • http://mike01s.wordpress.com MikeS

    I’m glad to see Ben added his link in an earlier comment. I read that debate as well earlier this week. It is stimulating to read pointed debate without all the ugliness you mentioned in a latter post. I used to be an avid book reader, but I must admit that given the choice, I’m reading more online now. To echo Scott Karp, maybe I’m one of those ADD readers he’r referring to. Hmm.

  • http://www.irish-guy.com Michael

    I was wondering recently about how tourists are getting their information during their trips. While many still bring guidebooks (lonely Planet, frommers, Footprint etc) for reassurance, there isnt any shared reading anymore. They are seeking day to day information about hostels, hoostels, events online.

    If they are skipping on travel books, are they also skipping on shared conversation off-line as well as skipping those parts of the guidebook (country history, language, customs, culture), they that simply dont have to read any more?

  • http://www.getmeringtone.com anna

    Its not that books want your undivided attention, its you that get engrossed in it. They binds u to the core and i m a avid book reader. But reading online is not that bad.