Posts about books

Start the presses

A set of very happy announcements from the CUNY Journalism School and the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism:

* First, we are opening the new Cuny Journalism Press. Yes, I said press. On paper. And screen. Working with the innovative OR Books and John Oakes, we are creating a press that will produce print books and e-books about journalism and by journalists with new business models (starting with a higher share of revenue to authors). Just as we are working here at CUNY on new business models for newspapers and magazines and other denizens of the printed page, so do we want to see new models come to book publishing. So my dean, Steve Shepard, my colleague Tim Harper — who is heading up the press — and others here thought it would be a great idea to start this enterprise. We’ll be announcing some other related activities with Oakes soon.

* Second, I’m thrilled to announce that the first book to be published is by none other than @acarvin, aka Andy Carvin, the man who tweeted the Arab Spring and showed us all a new way to think of journalism and how it must add value to the flow of information the net now enables. Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution, will be released later this year (and available for pre-order soon). I recommend the book to you all. I’ve had the privilege to read it — and write its foreword. A snippet:

Andy is a prototype for a new kind of journalist. He also turns out to be a masterful storyteller. He has taken all he witnessed from afar in the Arab Spring and crafted it into a dramatic, compelling, informative page-turner. He has combed his archive of more than 100,000 tweets and sifted through the rapid-fire, staccato progression of the voices to find a narrative sense and create a cohesive saga….

Yes, we still need reporters on the ground to ask and answer the questions. We need them to bring us perspective and context. Andy does not replace them. He and his nodes and networks of witnesses, participants and experts add to the news in ways not possible before. Journalism is not shrinking. Through Andy’s example, as well as through experiments in data journalism, crowdsourcing, hyperlocal sites and innovations yet to come, journalism is growing. Andy Carvin is proof of that.

* Tim Harper announced another three titles: Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers, by former New York Times chief counsel James Goodale; Investigative Journalism in America: A History, by Steve Weinberg, a member of the University of Missouri Journalism School faculty and co-founder of IRE, the leading association of investigative reporters and editors; and The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Nat Hentoff’s Life in Journalism, Jazz and the First Amendment, by CUNY Journalism Professor David L. Lewis, a former Daily News reporter and “60 Minutes” producer and associate producer who is also directing a feature-length documentary on Hentoff.

If I manage to get off my duff and get moving on a project I’ve been working on, I might add to that bookshelf myself.

Just as CUNY saw an opportunity for a new journalism school when others thought journalism was dying, so did we see an opportunity to start a new press about journalism even though others declared books dying. At Tow-Knight, I believe we must not only study and teach new models but we must also help incubate them. The CUNY Journalism Press is one such effort.

Advice to media & Muslims: Don’t feed the trolls

The jerk who made that video, the one that supposedly incited rioting and murder in Egypt and Libya, is the very definition of a troll: He made it to elicit the reaction he was sure he’d cause. That is what trolls do.

Those who reacted are trolls, too, but of course worse: murderers. They exploited just any excuse — an obviously cheesy, fake movie seen by no one — to stir up their band of fanatics into visible outrage and violence.

The media who cover these trolls — the trolls who make the bait and the trolls who look for bait — are dupes themselves, just continuing a cycle that will only rev faster and faster until someone says: Stop. Stop feeding the trolls.

We’ve learned that online, haven’t we all? Oh, I sometimes have to relearn the lesson when one of my trolls dangles some shiny object in front of me and I snap. I just pulled the food bowl away from one troll: no reaction for you. I was just delighted to see another troll get his comeuppance and said so. But as a rule, a good rule, one should never, never feed the trolls. They only spit it up on you. Starving them of the attention they crave and the upset they hunger for and feed on is the only answer.

But still, there’s no controlling the trolls. Some still think the trolls can be stopped. An Australian newspaper just started a #stopthetrolls campaign to bring the ride miscreants to justice and silence. Good luck with that. In a sense, the rioters and murderers in Libya and Egypt and now elsewhere are demanding that someone stop the trolls they are choosing to get heated up about.

But, of course, there is no stopping them. Neither do I want to stop them. I believe in protecting free speech, which must include protecting even bad, even noxious speech.

Zeynep Tufecki, a brilliant observer of matters media, digital, and social, cautioned on Twitter that we must understand a key difference in attitudes toward speech here and elsewhere in the world: “Forget Middle East, in most of Europe you could not convince most people that *all* speech should be protected. That is uniquely American,” she tweeted yesterday. “In most places, including Europe, ‘hate-speech’ –however defined — is regulated, prosecuted. Hence, folks assume not prosecuted=promoted…. US free speech absolutism already hard to comprehend for many. Add citizen media to mix, it gets messy. Then, killers exploit this vagueness.” Excellent points and important perspective for the current situation.

But the internet is built to American specifications of speech: anyone can speak and it is difficult unto impossible to stop them as bits and the messages they carry are designed to go around blocks and detours. The internet *is* the First Amendment. We can argue about whether that is the right architecture — as an American free-speech absolutist, I think it is — but that wouldn’t change the fact that we are going to hear more and more speech, including brilliance and including bile. There’s no stopping it. Indeed, I want to protect it.

So we’d best understand how to adapt society to that new reality. We’ve done it before. This from Public Parts about the introduction of the printing press:

“This cultural outlook of openness in printing’s early days could just as easily have gone the other way. The explosion of the printed word — and the lack of control over it — disturbed the elite, including Catholic theologian Desiderius Erasmus. ‘To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?’ he complained. ‘[T]he very multitude of them is hurtful to scholarship, because it creates a glut and even in good things satiety is most harmful.’ He feared, according to [Elizabeth] Eisenstein, that the minds of men ‘flighty and curious of anything new’ would be distracted from ‘the study of old authors.’ After the English Civil War, Richard Atkyns, an early writer on printing, longed for the days of royal control over presses. Printers, he lamented, had ‘filled the Kingdom with so many Books, and the Brains of the People with so many contrary Opinions, that these Paper-pellets become as dangerous as Bullets.’ In the early modern period a few ‘humanists called for a system of censorship, never implemented, to guarantee that only high-quality editions be printed,’ Ann Blair writes in Agent of Change. Often today I hear publishers, editors, and academics long for a way to ensure standards of quality on the internet, as if it were a medium like theirs rather than a public space for open conversation.”

There is a desire to *control* conversation, to *civilize* it, to *cleanse* it. God help us, I don’t want anyone cleaning my mouth out. I don’t want anyone telling me what I cannot say. I don’t want a society that silences anything that could offend anyone.

I understand why Google decided to take down That Video from YouTube in Libya and Egypt, given how it is being used, while also arguing that it meets YouTube’s standards and will stay up elsewhere. But YouTube thus gives itself a dangerous precedent as some will expect it to cleanse other bad speech from its platform. YouTube is in a better position in Afghanistan, where the government blocked all of YouTube but then it’s the government that is acting as the censor and it’s the government that must be answerable to its people.

But in any case, blocking this video is no more the answer than rioting and murdering over it. All this will only egg on the trolls to make more bad speech and in turn egg on trolls on the other side to exploit it.

The only answer is to learn how to deal with speech and to value it sufficiently to acknowledge that good speech will come with bad. What we have to learn is how to ignore the bad. We have to learn that every sane and civilized human knows that bad speech is bad. We don’t need nannies to tell us that. We don’t need censors to protect it from us. We certainly don’t need fanatics to fight us for it. We need the respect of our fellow man to believe that we as civilized men and women know the difference. We need to grow up.

Book as process, book as byproduct, book as conversation

Nieman Lab’s Megan Garber wrote a brilliant post about the nature of books and conversation using as illustration a conversation about my book. It is, as Jay Rosen said, too good to summarize. So please do go read it.

I love Garber’s piece not just because she said that “90 percent of Morozov’s criticisms are wildly unfair,” referring to a so-called review of my book. I love it because Garber delivered the most serious criticism of my book to date:

The precise thing that makes idea-driven books so valuable to readers — their immersive qualities, the intimate, one-on-one relationship they facilitate between authors and readers — also make them pretty lousy as actual sharers of ideas. Books don’t go viral. And that’s largely because the thing that makes books lucrative to authors and publishers — their ability to restrain ideas, to wall them off from the non-book-buying world — is antithetical to virality. How can books be expected to share ideas when the very point of their existence is containment?

I wrote a book about sharing. But a book is a bad form for sharing.

The book, Garber said, is “designed to advance books within the marketplace, rather than the marketplace of ideas. It aims at publicity rather than publicness, at selling objects rather than propelling the arguments they contain.”

Garber is right. I’ve confessed my hypocrisy in writing both my books on other grounds: I didn’t make them digital, clickable, correctable, linkable…. I did it to get paid, edited, promoted, and distributed (though with the closing of Borders, that last function becomes less valuable). Garber points out as mitigation that I had shared my ideas about publicness on my blog before I wrote the book.

“The professor has been preaching publicness for years — at Buzzmachine, in his Guardian column, at conferences, on TV, on Twitter, on the radio, on his Tumblr. If you follow Jeff Jarvis, you follow Public Parts. You’ve seen his thoughts on publicness take shape over time. The book that resulted from that public process — the private artifact — is secondary. It is the commercial result of a communal endeavor.”

She’s being too easy on me. While I wrote the book, I did share and discuss many of the ideas in it on my blog. That can be a form of collaboration and peer review. But I didn’t do it nearly enough, as far as I’m concerned. I was so busy researching, writing, and editing the book that I neglected the blog.

As Garber notes, I say in Public Parts that I should try to make my next project — if I choose to undertake one — different.

At the end of Public Parts, Jarvis mentions that his next project may not be a book at all, but rather a book-without-a-book: a Godinesque series of public events held both in person and online. “The book,” Jarvis writes, “if there is one, would be a by-product and perhaps a marketing tool for more events.”

The book, if there is one. The book, a by-product. Imagine the possibilities.

I’m still working on what that could be. So let me begin the process and outline my early thinking here to hear what you think.

Start with Kevin Kelly’s 2006 essay in The New York Times Magazine arguing that authors would come to support themselves with performance — and John Updike’s appalled reaction to this “pretty grisly scenario.” I’m not suggesting that authors become merely actors after their books are done.

I’m suggesting, as Garber does, that talks, events, symposia, blogs, hangouts… — discussion with smart people in any form — should come before the book. The process becomes the product; the book (if there is one) is a byproduct.

To take an example: I’ve been wanting to explore the impact of one simple idea, that technology now leads to efficiency over growth. I wrote a post about one aspect of that here and here as well as here and here. The conversation was amazing in its intelligence, perspective, and generosity. It became even better when Y Combinator founder Paul Graham posted it to Hacker News with a challenge, asking what makes this revolution (digital v. industrial) different. Amazing replies ensued. It took me many hours to go through it all, taking many notes.

That made me decide to propose this topic as a talk to South by Southwest. If accepted, that will give me a deadline for research. But I want — no, need — more conversation in the meantime.

That leads me to an idea for a new business. I don’t really want to start it or run it; I just wish it existed so I could use it.

It is time to disrupt the conference and speaking businesses and give some measure of control back to speakers (also known as authors) and their publics (formerly known, as Jay Rosen would say, as audiences). I hope for a way to support the work of authors and thinkers — support it with conversation, attention, and collaboration as well as money.

So imagine this: Authors decide to hold their own event. If you have the brand and popularity of, say, Seth Godin (or, in the sales arena, Jeffrey Gitomer), you can gather a large roomful of fans without effort; each does. But folks like me don’t have their brand or promotional power. So let’s say I get together with another one or two authors and we propose an event in which we discuss what we’re working on.

Kickstarter would seem to be an ideal platform to find out whether there is sufficient demand to support such a gathering, at least to get started. If enough folks sign up, the authors can rent a venue: no risk. The startup I wish for would handle logistics for a fee. It could also be a platform for groups to get together, organizing conferences without conference organizers.

The event, in my view, isn’t speeches to audiences so much as conversations. The author needs to bring value: a presentation, a talk, a set of ideas or challenges. But it’s the conversation I crave, to develop and further challenge ideas and gather perspectives. The event could be streamed for a larger public. It could be videoed and shared online for continued exchange via blogs, Google+, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, et al.

Note that this isn’t about containing ideas but sharing them. That’s what Garber and I both want.

Is there a book? Why should there be? Because a book can memorialize the ideas and research that comes out of this process. It can bring the discipline that the form — and a good editor, like mine — can demand. It can spread the ideas yet farther — to the many more people who couldn’t be bothered joining in the process and the conversation. It can make the ideas last longer. (In Public Parts, I quote Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein pointing out that Gutenberg’s Bible turns out to be a much longer lasting repository of data than a floppy disk.)

If there’s a book, is it printed? The likelihood of that decreases by the day. So if it is just electronic, then it can change form, including video from the process; photos and graphics to illustrate points; and permalinks to any part of the book to support conversation on the net.

So now we arrive back that the book I apologized for not writing in WWGD? — digital, clickable, linkable, correctable, updateable, part of a conversation. There are issues: Conversations can be invaded by trolls. There’s no economic certainty. We’ll make missteps.

But can we get closer to Garber’s ideal? Well, we’ll know it when we see it. But if we try this route, we now have a standard to judge it against: the one Garber sets in her great post.

Our assumptions about information itself are shifting, reshaping “the news” from a commodity to a community, from a product to a process. The same changes that have disrupted the news industry will, inevitably, disrupt the book industry; Public Parts hints at what might come of the disruption. Books as community. Books as conversation. Books as ideas that evolve over time — ideas that shift and shape and inspire — and that, as such, have the potential of viral impact.

Can books go viral? Garber asks. Maybe, if they’re allowed to be more than books.

Friends’ books

I was so busy researching and writing Public Parts that I didn’t have time to give attention to some wonderful books written by friends. That’s such a sin because it’s such a privilege to have friends who write books, smart people who are so generous with their knowledge. So now that I’ve come up for air — just a gulp — from mine, here are books from folks I admire, some of which I’ve read, some I’ve dipped into, and some I’ll finally have the time to read.

* Micah Sifry’s WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency was invaluable for my writing of Public Parts. It is a brief but comprehensive survey of the importance of Wikileaks and the state of openness and transparency in government and society. Micah — with Andrew Rasiej, a leader of the Personal Democracy Forum — is tough on the current administration and its promises and delivery regarding openness. Highly readable, very authoritative, highly recommended.

* I love that Brooke Gladstone chose to tell the story of media’s influence as a work of graphic nonfiction. Figures she’s blaze trails. The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media is a creative, clever, clear, and concise (the alliteration is accidental, I assure you) guide to how media reached its place in society. She told me after finishing it that it was terribly hard work and she hopes not to do it again. But I hope she lies.

* Gary Vaynerchuk’s The Thank You Economy is his best so far because I think it captures his voice and is authenticity. I’m reminded of him at South by Southwest when he stood on stage and did nothing but converse with his public. That’s what he does here, giving his best and most direct and honest advice.

* I treasure arguing — not fighting, arguing — with some people. Siva Vaidhyanathan is atop that list. He challenges me and his book The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry) is indeed a challenge to the ideas in my last book. We look at Google and the consequences of its size and success through different ends of the telescope. I wish we’d had the chance to debate the topic more often and I can’t wait to see what he turns to next.

* I wish I could be Steven Johnson when I grow up. He’s my idea of the great New York author even if — fink — he deserted Brooklyn for California. I love hearing him talk about his books almost as much as I love reading them. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (just coming out in paperback) is a wonderful account of creativity. I particularly enjoyed his contribution to the discussion of serendipity and its modern fate.

* It’s a crime of publishing that Heather Brooke’s The Revolution Will Be Digitised: Dispatches from the Information War is not yet released in the U.S. Pssst–editors: go buy it. Heather is the brillliant journalist in the U.K. who caused the MP’s expense scandals to come out and who was on the forefront of the Wikileaks story. She is my patron saint of transparency. I’ve just begin to dig in — terribly regretful that it wasn’t out before I had to finish my book — after having it shipped over from London. I can’t wait to dig in.

* At a talk in Ottawa, I got to meet Canadian journalist Andrew Potter and then got a copy of his book, The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves. He examines an interesting angle on our current debates on real names and real identities: when are we authentic?

* While I was working on my book, Seth Godin didn’t just write a book, he started a new publishing imprint that is disrupting the publishing model: The Domino Project. They’re putting out a bunch of neat, small books — two by Seth already — and rethinking what drives books. More on this later.

* It would be impossibly brash of me to call Elizabeth Eisenstein a friend by including her in this list of friends’ books, but I’ll use this moment to recommend her latest, Divine Art, Infernal Machine. Eiseinstein is the premier Gutenberg scholar, author of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Volumes 1 and 2 in One), which was utterly invaluable in my research and in shaping my thinking about the parallels between Gutenberg’s disruption and the internet’s. I wish I’d received her new book earlier but even as I edited the final drafts of my book, I was devouring her latest and inserting bits I learned. If you’re a Gutenberg geek, as I now am, you must read it.

* It would also be flip of me to call Richard Florida a friend, as we’ve met only on Twitter. But his latest, The Great Reset: How the Post-Crash Economy Will Change the Way We Live and Work, is right up the alley of the next project I want to work on and so I’m about to dive in.

* The brilliant Yochai Benkler taught so many of us about the disruptive economics of networks in The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Now he has a new (and thinner) book, The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest, which I downloaded to my Kindle just today. Eager to dive into this, too.

* I don’t know Marc Levinson, author of The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, but since I’m recommending books and since I just finished and was wowed by this one, I might as well throw a recommendation his way. As we look at the Senate going after Google for the nebulous sin of being too big, it’s so terribly instructive to look back at the demonization of success and size that hit A&P as America’s first chain store. Fascinating book.

* Finally, friend David Weinberg is still working on his next, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room. It’s not out of galleys yet but I’ve been privileged to start tasting it and it’s — as I would expect — wonderful. More on that later.

To all these literary and literate friends, I apologize for the delay in linking to your good works and great generosity.

: Oops. Went to the bookstore today and found two more:

* Paulo Coelho’s Name Your Link is his latest novel. Paulo is amazingly generous with his readers — as he was with me, allowing him to interview him for my last book. A delightful gentleman.

* Sales guru and god Jeffrey Gitomer has Social BOOM!: How to Master Business Social Media to Brand Yourself, Sell Yourself, Sell Your Product, Dominate Your Industry Market, Save Your Butt, … and Grind Your Competition into the Dirt. We bonded over social media and its opportunities for business. He had me down to visit his staff and I included that in the new afterword for What Would Google Do?.

Books as makers of publics

Here’s my talk to the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in Frankfurt before the Book Fair there, in which I argue that books are tools for making publics and now that we all have presses publishers must ask how they can play a role in helping us make publics — and how they can protect our tools of publicness.

I’m having trouble setting the width of the player, so go to the “more” link and you can watch the videos.

Don’t fragment books (or other content)

I agree with Devin Coldewey at CrunchGear that Andrew Wylie’s deal to publish big authors’ backlists exclusively on the Amazon Kindle is bad for readers (and for authors and for the industry).

Fragmenting content such that one has to buy one device to read one author and another to read another is blind to the needs and realities of the market. It’s dealmaking for dealmaking’s sake.

If I were one of those authors, I’d squeal like a columnist put behind a Times paywall (either one). Random House is right to stick it back to Wylie and refuse to do business with the now-niche agency. And Amazon is putting itself in a dangerous position to be the enemy, not the friend, of writers, publishers, and readers. But Amazon’s no fool. It is driving a wedge into the heart of the industry.

The real upshot of this deal, I think, is that agents and publishers alike will find themselves locked out as big authors make deals directly with Amazon.

Yes, the Kindle reader is available on laptops and phones and iPads and coming Android tablets. But it won’t be available on other eBooks, and that’s going to hurt the eBook market’s growth, which could affect Amazon, even as it announces that its Kindle book sales exceeded hardback sales last month.

This is the same fear I have about the appification of content with magazine editors gleefully slapping their stories onto iPad apps in the belief that it returns control of the experience and business model to them when, in fact, it cuts them off from every browser user around the world. Nose. Face. Where’s my knife?

In the early days of content on mobile, we saw this game play out: Carriers made exclusive deals to get content in hopes that would get users to buy their phones instead of the other guys’. Didn’t work. A phone’s a phone. A browser’s a browser. A book’s a book.

And an e-book better damned well be an e-book, or books and authors and publishers and agents are all screwed.


One of my great joys researching Public Parts, my book about the benefits of publicness, is finding parallels between today and the early modern period of the 16th and 17th centuries (aka the renaissance) with the introduction of tools — the press, the stage, music, art, maps, markets — that enabled people to create publics and how that changed how the world operated (the way we are changing it again today).

Here’s one example from Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (recommended by Clay Shirky) about how errata in printed books led to collaboration.

In their early days of printing, books — and other publications — were not treated as temples of perfection, as they are today (which is why their contemporary producers — authors, editors, journalists, publishers — look down so on the ever-imperfect internet). Indeed, before Gutenberg, scribes had long entered errors into books as they were copied and recopied. Printing, Eisenstein says, both multiplied errors in so many more copies and also represented a “great leap” toward standardization because the errors were easier to find.

early printing press

Print, at first, did not step toward perfection but away from it. “[A]n age-old process of corruption was aggravated and accelerated after print,” Eisenstein says. Errors could spread farther faster (sound familiar?). It was because of the fear of what this new technology could cause that printers were fined for publishing the “wicked Bible” of 1631 (which omitted the “not” from the Seventh Commandment … look it up).

But this process of error was turned to advantage by some. Sixteenth-century editors and publishers, Eisentein says, “created vast networks of correspondents, solicited criticism of each edition, sometimes publicly promising to mention the names of readers who sent in new information or who spotted the errors which would be weeded out.” So publishing became collaborative; that’s what printing allowed.

Eisenstein quotes Lloyd A. Brown from The Story of Maps about map publisher Ortelius:

By the simple expedient of being honest with his readers and inviting criticism and suggestions, Ortelius made his Theatrum a sort of cooperative enterprise on an international basis. He received helpful suggestions from far and wide and cartographers stumbled over themselves to send him their latest maps of regions not covered in the Theatrum.

We call that transparency and collaboration now.

Eisenstein goes farther. She says that publishers “often encouraged readers to launch their own research projects and field trips…. Thus a knowledge explosion was set off. The ‘fall-out’ from Ortelius’ editions, for example, encompassed treatises on topography and local history ranging from Muscovy to Wales.” (My emphasis) She argues, according to James A. Dewar and Peng Hwa Ang in Agent of Change (a book of essays on Eisenstein), that “this feedback reversed the slow degradation of recorded thought and ushered in the era of accumulation of thought on which the Scientific Revolution was built.” Says Eisenstein: “The closed sphere or single corpus passed down from generation to generation, was replaced by an open-ended investigatory process pressing against every advancing frontiers.”

Demonstrating that there’s nothing new that’s not old, when Cory Doctorow spoke to executives of Holtzbrinck in Berlin a few weeks ago (I also spoke), he told how he is doing similar things with his latest book, giving credit to readers who find errors and constantly making the book better thanks to them. And, of course, Cory’s BoingBoing is the product of sharing and collaboration.

This attitude — from the 16th century and from Cory — changes the way we look at books and media, not as sculpture cut out of rock but as still-wet clay. The problem we’ve had in recent history — from the industrial age to today — is that we made mistakes too expensive to admit and that cut us off from correction and collaboration with our public and from the free explosion of knowledge Eisenstein talks about. But the internet — always wet — begins to fix that, doesn’t it? We go back to the future.

In fact, Eisenstein argues that the printing press fixed this exact same problem vis a vis its predecessor technologies. “The sequence of improved editions and ever-expanding reference-works was a sequence without limits — unlike the great library collections amassed by Alexandrian rulers and Renaissance princes.” Their books were static, finished and done. Printed books had editions and readers who could improve them. We lost that advantage — and attitude — over the centuries.

We also lost the openness to collaboration that this new flexibility brought. It’s not just about technology, though. It’s about a worldview, a different relationship between producer and public. Eisenstein quotes David Hume writing to his publisher: “The Power which Printing gives us of continually improving and correcting our Works in successive Editions appears to me the chief Advantage of that art.”

This cultural attitude in the early days could have just as easily gone the other way (as eventually it did anyway). Ann Blair writes in Agents of Change that in the early modern period a few “humanists called for a system of censorship, never implemented, to guarantee that only high-quality editions be printed.” How often do we hear today suggestions to license or at least anoint quality in our new, uncontrolled press?

I don’t want to make it seem as if early books were all temporary and changeable. As Eisenstein next points out, the advantage of printing was that it made permanent knowledge that had been diffuse and was all too easily lost in a few hand-made copies that could be destroyed. It was printing, she said, that enabled Thomas Jefferson to collect all the laws of Virginia, adding (my emphases):

It seems in character for Jefferson to stress the democratizing aspect of the preservative powers of print which secured precious documents not by putting them under lock and key but by removing them from chests and vaults and duplicating them for all to see.”

Bringing knowledge together and making it public is what enables the public to add to it, to correct it, to be inspired by it.

Sound familiar?

Me and my Kindle

I was wrong about the Kindle. When I unboxed it two nights ago, I excitedly bought my own book to feel all cyber and tweeted about it. But the book wouldn’t show up. “Opening,” it said forever. Two hours went by and I called Amazon (which – new for them – made the phone number easy to find and answered it in a minute). The lady said the modem had to be fully charged. That made no sense; it would mean essentially that it would never work unless plugged in. But, fine, I waited for the green light. Still no book. Two hours more. I called Amazon again. The man said it must be a defective unit and he nicely said he’s ship a replacement (this is why I am happy I have Amazon stock). I chronicled my frustration on Twitter, and word passed around there.

The next day, I tried the Kindle in Manhattan and it worked fine. Two more tests verified that the problem was not the Kindle but Sprint, which was never great at home when I had a Sprint Treo but would at least work. Now, it took more than four hours to download a book and even going to a new store menu page takes minutes. I confessed my mistake on Twitter and shifted blame to the phone company. Sprint monitors Twitter – that’s the good news – but they might as well not, as the Sprint guy merely tried to sidestep responsibility, saying that there wasn’t a network outage (I didn’t say there was) and shifting blame back to Amazon: “Spoke 2 @Sprint Care, Retail. Kindle issues should go 2 Amazon customer care.” Amazon should learn to pick its partners more wisely in the future. And I need to learn to cram caveats into tweets when I have problems.

So now I have a Kindle that works in some places, not others – and not working at home may be a killer. This is why I wish it came with wi-fi, or at least the option (especially for when I travel overseas). I prefer my control of communications on my iPhone. But then the problem with the iPhone is also that it has to be connected; I’d like to download content – such as the New York Times – to it so I could read the paper on the train.

The iPhone and Kindle are a study in contrasts. The biggest is, of course, the business model: One may buy books on either, but current content on the iPhone will, in most cases, be ad-supported; on the Kindle, it is paid for by the reader. The iPhone UI, right down to its flowing scrolling on its touchscreen, is elegant and happy; the Kindle is klunky and irritating. The Kindle lets me download and read anywhere; I like that; the iPhone won’t let me download The New York Times to read on the subway and that’s too bad. The iPhone lets me control my communications better. The Kindle screen is larger, yes, but the iPhone isn’t that much smaller:

kindle iphone comparison

So I’m undecided about the Kindle. Its organization is still inelegant to say the least. For example, when reading the Times, it wants me to go story-by-story – that’s bookthink. I want to see the menu of articles in a section. But when I then go to an article and page through it, to get back to that section listing, I have to go back to the top and then back to the section. When reading a book on either device, I miss easy ways to thumb through.

If I traveled a great deal and took books with me everywhere – which I don’t – the Kindle would clearly be a godsend. And maybe it will make me start traveling with books – and reading them – more often, as the web has been bad for my book reading habits. But I’m still not sure.

I also wish that the business model of book publishing were different: that I could buy the contents of a book and get it in any and all media: I could read it on paper when I’m home and on Kindle when I’m on the road and listen to it on my iPhone when I’m driving. I disagree strongly with Roy Blount Jr.’s assertion on behalf of authors (other than me) that the Kindle shouldn’t be reading books aloud to readers because it would cannibalize audio-book sales. This assumes that people who buy the print book also buy the audiobook in great numbers and that having a book read by the computerized and irritating voice of a Kindle will hurt sales. No, I think a book should be sold as a package: buy access to the ideas and get them however you like. I think that would spur greater sales. The next step is to move past selling books as a product, frozen in time, and start selling them as a process. But that’s a post for another day.

I’m holding onto my Kindle for now. I was wrong about it at first blush and so I need to give it more of a chance.