Posts about books

Context is content

Nico Flores, a blogging friend from the BBC, writes a provocative post about content:

Content is nothing on its own. It only exists as part of conversations — understood not in the usual ‘blogsphere’ sense of deliberation, but as shared concerns (not my term), concerns that we must partake in to be part of communities. When I buy a novel I choose it not just because I think I might enjoy it, but also because it is also being read by other people, because it’s part of a larger movement that I’m interested in, or because it is relevant to something else I read. Reading is satisfactory only if I bring with me a certain baggage; and reading will add to my baggage, allowing me to appreciate other works and, crucially, to have more of a shared background with people around me. My point is that content–or, more precisely, the transaction of consuming content–is only meaningful as part of a wider conversation that is made up of countless related transactions.

He goes on to write about the role of discovery in content itself.

When Clay Shirky and I first saw AOL’s blogging tools and they fretted about the junk that may be created, we told them that “it’s not content until it’s linked.” That’s a glib line, but it’s in sync with Nico’s point about the larger definition of content.

Content does not exist without context. In the past, that simply meant we needed to know more about the creator or the time: The Diary of Anne Frank is about its context.

Part of what I’m trying to argue in my speculations about the fate of books is that context both defines and enriches content. Without that context, the content is poorer. The ability to link to and from content and its antecedents and successors in a chain of criticism, contribution, questioning, correction, argument, and remixing becomes part of the content itself. The timing of content matters, of course. What content does not say says a lot about it, as well. Who creates or consumes content also defines that content; chick lit is chick lit because it is written and read by chicks. And thanks to the ability of digital media to capture our content actions, the act of consumption is now an act of creation; our iPod playlists, our Amazon breadcrumbs, our Google clicks, our Flickr links, and our RSS aggregations are all collections of interaction with content that become content themselves.

But cutting off content from such conversation, in Nico’s broader use of the term — by imprisoning writing only in books or story-telling only on a disc or journalism behind a wall — we rob that content of content.

More on books

[Sullivan readers: For the full discussion, click on the books tag.]

Some more conversation and links roiling around the post I wrote the other day about killing books to save books (which, just to be clear, means that I want to save books by enhancing books with the new opportunities the digital age brings… ditto newspapers… ditto television… ditto all media).

: NewWest‘s Jonathan Weber in The Times of London:

Books, for starters, are about a lot more than “communicating information.” I like having books around because I find them pretty, for example. Their somewhat random presence is a reminder of things past, almost always in a nice way. A well-made book has a very pleasant feel, a tactile sensation that makes you want to hold it. The words themselves are only a part of it.

And when we think about the words, the “information”, it’s hard to separate them from the way in which they are being read. Books are usually read in a different physical context, and in a different mental space, than other types of reading material. They are, at their best, things that transport you, take you to another world, probably one far, far away from the frenetic information exchange that is the internet.

Mr Jarvis gripes that books represent “lecture media” – the bad old kind of media in which the professionals tell it to the laymen, as opposed to the good new kind of media that is a conversation among peers. Now Mr Jarvis is an evangelist of conversation media, but still: lectures have their place. I’m not looking to have a conversation with Dostoevsky, or Don DeLillo, or even a great non-fiction writer like Robert Caro. I’m looking to be carried off by their words, enchanted by their artistry, and the fewer digital distractions and yammering commenters, the better.

: In the SF Chronicle, Al Saracevic reacts to the Carrmudgeon attack:

But in all seriousness, it’s always fun to watch intellectuals spar, but the underpinnings of this debate go to the core of modern philosophical debate. Do we believe in mob rule, where any and all group discussion is an improvement, as the digital utopians do? Or do we celebrate the artist, the expert and the author as cultural beacons?

Jarvis says: Print is where words go to die.

Carr says: The Web is where culture goes to die.

But just as with books in print and digital form, it’s not either/or, it’s and.

: Alex Wright argues, delightfully, the contrary problem: Discussing the web in terms of books limits the web:

I suppose it’s inevitable that writers will tend to view the Web through the filter of books and other printed artifacts; they seem to instinctively look at the Web as a better or worse kind of “book.” But that’s an awfully restrictive vision. As Walter J. Ong argued, electronic media in many ways resemble oral culture more closely than they do traditional literate culture (a topic I touched on briefly at the IA Summit). This is not to say that online media are by any means identical to oral cultures; rather, they exhibit a “secondary orality,” filtered through literacy, that nonetheless bears many hallmarks of older oral cultures. To understand what’s really going on, we need to widen our gaze beyond the traditional – and relatively recent – reference points of print culture to understand the role of deeper patterns rooted in our pre-literate past.

This is no easy task; we have such a collective cultural bias towards literacy that we tend to overlook the role of oral culture in shaping the way we communicate. But the reemergence of oral culture online, coupled with the rise of visual symbolism and spatial wayfinding, suggests whole ranges of experience that have little or nothing to do with books. This is a topic I’ve been probing in the book I’ve been working on (and about which I should have more to say in the next couple of months).

For now, the writerly crowd seems stuck in this mode of framing the Web exclusively in terms of its relationship to print. As long as the discussion remains mired in this kind of reductionism, I suspect we’re just going to keep seeing variations on the same tired themes, and the kind of reflexive confrontationalism that fails to allow for the complexity of what’s really happening. Not that it matters all that much; I imagine the Web will go on.

: Content to be Different says:

Jarvis speaks about the reverence we have for the book. We may indeed fetishise the object or the whole cultural practice from browsing the bookshop to curling up in bed to passing the book to a friend. But why should that be a problem. If the publishing industry can find a way to sell dead trees – I for one would still want to buy paper and ink as a gift for a new baby for instance – so be it. The issue is not the medium it is the economics.

Jarvis says: “We need to get over the book. And then we can reinvent it.”

We are moving into a media space where cultural practices lead developments rather than follow where Big Media strategies or economic models follows. It is not the book that needs reinventing, it is publishing. And that re-invention is happening and it is happening from below.

Imagine a media space where readers have the options to passively read or actively read/write. Imagine they can do that with the formats they choose, paper, screen, pda, phone whatever. Imagine a generation where they concentrate on the practices and experiences of reading/writing and discovering the best information and the most impactful content rather than the medium or the author….

: Eddie Awad condensed the discussion so far into a good gravy.

: John P. Mayer jumps off to call for electronic legal casebooks.

: Dinesh Tantri likens the issues in publishing with those in knowledge management.

Resident philistine to resident curmudgeon

Sometime between the moment my RSS reader got his latest post and I read it on his blog, Nicholas Carr apparently edited his description of me. It was: “…intones the blogosphere’s resident philistine, Jeff Jarvis.” But then he abandoned his color and descriptive juice and kept only his Thesaurus-happy said-synonym. It became: “…intones Jeff Jarvis.” Drat, I was rather enjoying the title. I would be willing to call Carr the blogosphere’s would-be resident curmudgeon if he’d call me its resident philistine.

But then, Carr goes on to be a sort of philistine in his own right, for in his curmudgeonliness, he refuses to hear the value in individual voices — like his — empowered by the existence of blogs; he refuses to see the benefit of discovering those voices in conversations just like this, without the need to produce and deliver and sell and recycle expensive books and slick magazines. Not that you can’t produce paper, I say, but why stop there when new possibities for being heard abound?

Carr giddily quotes fellow curmudgeon John Updike lashing out at Kevin Kelly’s NY Times magazine story about digitizing books. And then Carr concludes:

It all comes down, I think, to two different visions of culture. One is a vision of integrity – of the integrity of individuals and their works. These are the building blocks of culture. In combining them, you do not destroy their integrity, or erase their edges. It’s their edges that give the entire construction its form and its solidity: edges butted up against other edges. The other is a vision of disintegration. It devalues the individual and his work, cherishing instead a dream of a communal higher consciousness that dissolves all edges. Culture becomes a formless liquid, an “Eden of everything,” as Kelly puts it. But an Eden of everything is also, inevitably, an Eden of nothing.

The web is where culture goes to die.

How incredibly closed-minded can one be? In his final line, he’s playing off my kicker, that “print is where words go to die.” I said that, lamenting that books fall off store and library shelves and into recycling vats and that the ideas and words on them are lost when they could, instead, live on and be found forever if only they were digital and available. I mourned the loss of that culture and urged the use of technology to prevent such death. Carr, on the other hand, simply dismisses the ability of the very web he is using to bring out individual voices, to value the individual more, to place more power and attention at the edges rather than at the mass-market center. To say that the “web is where culture goes to die” is just trying too damned hard to be the web’s would-be resident curmudgeon.

: LATER: Oh, Jeesh, now fellow would-be curmudgeon of the blogosphere, Scott Karp, equates me not with Philistine but with the U.S.S.R. in Carr’s comments:

Nick, you know you’re going to get your ass handed to you for this one. But here’s a consolation:

In the early 20th century, there were people who really believed that communism would work. It took a century of unfortunate history (Stalin, etc.) to demonstrate that an ideology that devalues the individual is fundamentally contrary to human nature.

This too shall pass.

Huh? And just who is the Stalin of the blogosphere? Do tell.

And it’s such a relief that the web shall pass. Tell David Carr and those poor, depressed newspaper sods, would you?

(Pity. And I thought we were getting along so well.)

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.

The book is dead. Long live the book.

I have nothing against books.

But the book is an outmoded means of communicating information. And efforts to update it are hampered because, cuturally, we give undue reverence to the form for the form’s sake. Publish or perish, that’s the highest call of our intellectual elite. But any medium that defines itself as a medium is in trouble: newspapers, broadcast TV, broadcast radio, and books. They are all faced with new and better means of doing what they do without regard to the limitations of any one medium.

The problems with books are many: They are frozen in time without the means of being updated and corrected. They have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources. They create, at best, a one-way relationship with a reader. They try to teach readers but don’t teach authors. They tend to be too damned long because they have to be long enough to be books. As David Weinberger taught me, they limit how knowledge can be found because they have to sit on a shelf under one address; there’s only way way to get to it. They are expensive to produce. They depend on scarce shelf space. They depend on blockbuster economics. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches. They are subject to gatekeepers’ whims. They aren’t searchable. They aren’t linkable. They have no metadata. They carry no conversation. They are thrown out when there’s no space for them anymore. Print is where words go to die.

The book industry is meeting in Washington now and there are lots of stories about how depressed publishers are. Keith Kelly in the New York Post reports on gloom at Book Expo:

Publishing database Web site Bowker reported that there were more new book titles sold in Great Britain last year – 206,000 new titles, an increase of 28 percent – than in the United States -172,000 new titles, a decrease of 18 percent.

General adult fiction and children’s books both showed double-digit declines in new titles, Bowker found.

Variety reports:

The print media need iTunes, too.

That’s the message — not to mention the hope and the fear — permeating the book bizbiz as it kicked off its annual BookExpo America confabconfab in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

Industry vets fretted over how to harness — or at least cope with — the onslaught of new platforms and windows.

“We’re talking about content, not books, and ways to get it out to people,” said Jerome Kramer, editor of trade pub the Book Standard, while moderating a panel on Web 2.0.

Well, yeah. But it’s still limiting to talk about content. It’s knowledge. It’s entertainment. It should be shared and improved and talked about and found in context in whatever way it wants to be and wherever we want it to be.

But we still worship the book as the book — even though we sometimes want to listen to and watch and search and annotate books, when we can, instead… and even though a lot of books, even if they are books, are utter crap. Any episode of The Sopranos is better than half the best-sellers out there. Yet we dismiss TV as the lowest of our culture and we allow our government to burn TV shows but we’d never let them burn books. I’m going to start teaching this fall and I suspect I’ll be pressured into writing a book. I write every day right here and get to learn more than I can learn writing a book. But blogs are, I can tell you, even lower on the scale of academic respect than TV shows and graffiti. (So maybe this is what I should write about in that book.)

We need to get over the book. And then we can reinvent it. That is true of newspapers. It’s true of book publishing as well. The knowledge that is there is, of course, invaluable. That is why we need to find new ways to gather and share and improve and preserve it.

Kevin Kelly just wrote a good and lengthy piece about the fate of the book in the digital age for the NY Times magazine. He concentrated on the technical and legal issues of digitizing books and bringing them the advantages of the web. But I think there’s something more that’s needed if we’re going to reinvent the book. There are business questions aplenty — how writing can be supported in a post-scarcity economy is a question for all forms of media. More than that, though, there are cultural issues. We have to get over the idea of lecture media, of one-way culture. So long as we worship the book as the book with its present limitations, we can’t reinvent it and save the substance of it.

We need to kill the book to save books.

: AND: A few related posts about my personal relationship with books here and here.

: ALSO: Andrew Brown at Comment is Free wonders why badly written books sell well and argues that reading books is, in fact, a unique activity requiring appropriate skill. I quote at length:

The Da Vinci Code really does raises an important and ancient mystery: why do bad books sell better than good ones? …

Not all bad books would sell better if they were better written: if you rewrote The Lord of the Rings so that it did not read like a translation from invented dead languages, a lot of the book’s strange credibility would vanish, though by no means all. Its deeper credibility is non-stylistic and has more to do with the experience of war and loss than anything else.

But there is a class of author where even this kind of explanation breaks down: Dan Brown, Dennis Wheatley, and some other thriller writers like Robert Ludlum fall into this category. They all produce books so aggressively badly written that no virtues of plot or characterisation – even if they existed, which they clearly do not – could make up for the deficiencies of style.

In this case, I think we have to admit that the badness of the prose style is integral to the books’ attraction; if better written, they would sell worse. This explanation requires a special sort of bad writing. It is not vulgarity, not mere inelegance and certainly not lack of refinement: it transcends all these flaws. It requires that every sentence throw up obstacles to comprehension, that every other word be redundant.

To read such books is rather like reading the transcripts of a telephone conversation, except that they contain words and constructions no one could ever use in ordinary speech. They have the redundancy of ordinary speech without any of its naturalness.

I labour the point, but this resemblance to ordinary speech (except for the small matter of being unspeakable) is, I think, the secret of these books’ success. It is not just that they are written by people who can’t, in any interesting sense, write; they are read by people who have not properly learned to read. I don’t mean their taste is uneducated, or that they can’t spell, or that they have trouble with long words, though all those things may be true; I mean that they have not internalised the activity of reading so that it feels natural.

The links between speech and reading and writing are, in a fully literate person, so strong that all three appear to be aspects of the same activity. … To a fully literate person, authors have voices more distinct and personal than most of the people they will ever talk to.

There are clearly millions of people for whom this is not true, and never will be: they have been taught to read in a functional sense, but the whole activity still feels unnatural. The chief characteristic of written language, for them, is that it is an artificial, painful and ineffective way of conveying meaning. All written sentences are, to such people, unspeakable; you would not say them out loud. Just so the style of The Da Vinci Code. …

An interesting argument and I won’t pull out my populist flag to debate the snobbish undercurrent. I think he has a point about style and conversation. I have always been delighted when people tell me that I write like I talk (but in print, they can read at their own speed instead of listen at mine: fast).

I blame authors (and editors and publishers) for bad books. Brown is blaming readers because they keep buying the crap. Not sure I agree with that. In the ’70s, TV was crap because that’s all the networks fed us. In the mid-’80s, when the remote control took over half of couches in the U.S. and the VCR and cable box gave us control over our consumption (though not yet creation) of media, good shows started to be made and they claimed the top of the ratings. TV proved that we do, indeed, have good taste. Critics argued then that we, the masses, could never manage complex shows but, as Steven Johnson demonstrates in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You, we can. In the mid-’80s, we saw TV get more complex and better; from Hill St. Blues led to The Sopranos. Learning that lesson is what made me a populist. That is what made me respect the public and the public’s speech online. So I say the jury is still hearing testimony in the trial of books.

I’m waiting for someone to lament that these kids today don’t read. But they read a lot. They may not read books as much and they may read their share of inspipid personal pages, but they also can now find and read information that is more relevant to them and that is recommended by people they trust thanks to the technology of the internet. I think — or, to be more accurate, I hope — that this will lead to more of a true meritocracy of writing. Good writing will rise. Bad writing may still be on the airport newsstand shelves. But then, when you’re braindead on a six-hour flight, sometimes a braindead book is still just what you need.