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Some interesting essays from around the web:

On the graying of photography. Not literal aging (well, somewhat), but more like a generational clash. But nothing we haven’t read about before about progress or changes in cultural viewpoints, especially vis-à-vis ebook vs paper book debates.

Success in science is dominated by finding statistically significant differences, and the need for positive results – coupled with the metric of publications – makes us all put on rose colored glasses. In this case, it might mean using weak statistics (original paper in PNAS) without regard as to whether it makes sense.

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I had been thinking about ebooks lately; the upcoming Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire are the final nails in the coffin for the book publishing industry. Ebooks are simply a commodity, and one that produces less revenue than either music or video. Static ebooks, resembling ink-on-paper, will be superceded by a product that fully embraces the possibilities given it by tablet based computers. What I am about to say comes sounds reactionary, perhaps even downright Luddite in today’s world: the reader demographic I belong to is being discarded.

I think I am that rare beast (20-35 years of age, male) who had avoided action movies, sports books (well, not sports statistics, but I would argue that falls under economics and math), video games (ever since I received my bachelor’s degree), and cars (I’m a big fan of public transport.) When I was ten, I made a conscious decision to listen only to classical music (I have been a listener of WGBH radio and Classical Radio Boston since that time). What I bugged my parents most about was shuttling me to the library, at least until I was old enough to get there on my own. When I was a teenager, I took piano lessons from a jazz and blues teacher; however, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind teaching me Beethoven instead. So yes, I admit I’m a strange duck. The point is that I’m probably not the mainstream market.

With regards to reading technology, I agree absolutely with people like Neil Postman and Nicholas Carr (among others), who argue that we are leaving the era of densely organized, linear narrative literacy into a mode of literacy designed for cursory scanning, link following, and 140-character phrasings. Although both these writers took pains to explain things in neutral terms, one cannot help but see their disgust and despair at the world having the opportunity to choose either a rich internal, mental life or one based on satisfying emotional impulses, pitch headlong to the latter.

Both these men phrased the argument in these terms: literacy, that of constructing arguments based on weaving facts and rhetoric and placing it into a written form enabled the formation of intellect and wisdom. The act of writing onto paper rendered a permanence to thoughts that required the author to consider and respect each and every word. Once published, the words cannot be so easily retracted and fixed. But the true innovation is that readers can refer to previous statements made in the text, something that simply cannot be done had the author been limited to speaking. Thus the book enabled complex arguments due to its ability for cross-referencing. Complex arguments can be delivered as one coherent unit of thought.

One might argue that web-enabled documents should enhance the concept of books, providing ease in cross-referencing and primary source access. However, that is generally not the case. While reading texts on screens is as efficient as reading on paper, when hypertext links are introduced, reading comprehension decreases. Once links are present, it seems readers can’t help but to follow them, especially to other articles. Ironically, overall, reading comprehension for the text they were originally reading goes down. It isn’t clear that the readers could distinguish between the multiple articles they read. Thus source attribution becomes problematic. It might not matter in every day speech, but if one wishes to write informed op/ed pieces or scholarly works, one might see how it can be inefficient.*

* Source misattribution need not be limited to heavy internet users; I remember a flap with Doris Goodwin Kearns, who was found to have plagiarized from another scholar in her book on the Kennedys. She accepted responsibility for her misuse of quotes, although her defense was carelessness and not malice. She lost track of her notes and mixed up passages she wrote with those written by others. I think, for a scholar, carelessness is a greater offense than stealing, but that’s like arguing whether being killed in a hail of bullets is worse than being killed by a single gunshot to the head.

Despite these episodes, one can see that books lend themselves to being literal dividers among different “thoughts”. On the web, HTML addresses serve that purpose. Who among us, however, pay that much attention to them as identifiers? At any rate, taking care might compensate for these lapses, but apparently, a majority of people do not take care (hence the likely decrease in comprehension and increase in confusing different authors.) Online texts become a data slush.

Books engage readers unimodally, making it difficult to access other source materials. Follow-up probably requires some selection and distinction by readers, to waste the least amount of time. One might save himself a lot of time in a library or bookstore by simply thinking about what was written and identifying the most fruitful line of research, then acting on it. This is probably the “virtuous cycle” engendered by books. Without the distraction of clicking on links or even doing something else (like playing games, watching YouTube, or making iTunes playlists), one’s attention is captured by the writer and his own thinking processes. If you value choosing, more often than not, things that make you think, you might place a premium on identifying works of distinction for reading, constantly sorting books into the “literary” and “genre” piles or marking non-fiction as “scholarly” or “polemical” (you know, like being an elitist snob?)

Neither Carr nor Postman feels  technology is neutral, because new technology brings the possibility of drastic change into an existing culture. This can certainly be tempered by our exercising selectivity when adopting and using new tech. But we don’t do that; Americans in particular have rarely felt need to hinder acceptance of technology, generally feeling new machines and methods can be simply mapped to existing routines. It is rare for humans to realize the potential that the new has to overwrite the old.

We also seem unable to accept that there are such things as intrinsic differences, and that describing the differences do not necessarily imply “goodness” or “badness”. Instead, contrasts are turned into a line of battle, and one list must vanquish the other. I have noticed that when people talk about the pros and cons of ebooks, they focus on the differences between reading on a screen and reading black-text-on-white-paper. People talk about ink versus pixel density, smells, tangibles, marginalia, and so forth. I had always found these arguments silly. Both systems convey words quite well and aesthetics is a secondary concern, while the true difference is that one is reading a relatively invariant, single-purpose object or from a computer.

One might want to keep in mind the differences that each engender, and then take steps to choose the right tools for the job. For example, web pages lend themselves to displaying news. The style of brevity, the need for immediacy, and the ability for multimedia presentations offer readers a variety of reports and primary audio/visual supporting materials. Interactive pictures (Flash animals, Javascript, and so on) suit themselves into longer magazine like articles. The very nature of link heavy, multimedia extravaganza, however, detracts from the single purpose and mindedness of books. In my experience reading on e-readers, computers, laptops, and tablets, I have not come across the “all-business” approach of book. A writer can simply tell his story, present evidence, furnish a descriptive table of contents, and simply get out of my way.

But there is one difference between my take on screen based reading technologies from those of Postman and Carr. I have never had the problem of distraction when reading or writing with tablets or desktop PCs. One reason is that I spend time to find the best piece of software to let me read in the way that I want. Sure, I am particular about minutiae like margin width, font face and font size, but once set, I do not fuss with settings. I’m more concerned with optimizing my ‘read-flow”. On my Nook color,  I got rid of stock Nook Color (well, I run CM7.1 off an SD card. I have a soft spot for B&N right now, considering that I think that Amazon will drive them out of business) because the Nook’s reading software does not hook into Evernote. Also, the Nook version of Evernote was at an earlier version than for the general Android market (it’s been corrected since, but I still can’t share directly into it from the NC reader).

The base NC OS also does not allow for widgets; one thing I love about Evernote for the Android market is the expanded widget, which shows 3 previews of your most recent notes. You can either add a new note or tap the preview to go directly to that note. With rich text formatting, I can now copy and paste interesting quotes from the ereader software, change formatting, write a few thoughts, and go back to my e-book.

This might seem inefficient. It is. For all-in-one note taking, I like MoonReader. However, it does not support CSS for formatting ebooks properly. Well, it has a mode where it displays CSS using Android’s native HTML renderer. Unfortunately, the book is essentially displayed as a web page, and the user can no longer highlight or annotate text. WIth that said, most ebooks can be read with basic paragraph indentations. For non-fiction, it’s a non-starter. It can be hard to tell whether the author wrote something or if he set something of into block-quotes. I’ve gone back to Aldiko. Selecting text across pages is no longer a problem. I just copy/paste in two segments.

Why do I like this inefficiency? I’ve found that when it’s easy to make notes, I made morethan when I composed my notes carefully. I realized that using the internal highlighting function creates the college textbook phenomenon: where a large portion of the text is highlighted by the student, but without marginalia. I intentionally made it less convenient for myself by copying the relevant passsage in another program. This means I have introduced an immediate cost in my note taking, and everytime I do so, I have to disrupt my reading flow. As a result, I annotate in ebooks the way I mark up actual paper books. I do bracket an important passaage or two, but write a summary, objections, citations to contrary arguments and publicstions, or questions in the margin. I try reading larger segments of the book, pick a salient quote, and write a small summary of the arguments.

I see this as adapting technology to my reading, as opposed to letting tools change the way I read. Yes, I spent a little time with metareading, trying to find my comfort and thinking about what I want in my software. Before I got my NookColor, I read on the phone, and before that, I had a Palm/Compaq/HP PDA. Then, I tended to read fiction (due to terrible inefficencies with annotations – this was the PalmPilot days) on the PDA, and reserved non-fiction readings to books I owned. I also read a lot more library books than I do now.

So I never wrung my hands over reading ebooks, because I made a conscious effort to do my e-reading in a way where my ability to think, ruminate, and write is preserved. I spent some time adjusting the software for my comfort. But I don’t see that as any different from setting up a reading nook, a den, or a writing desk. I’ve seen writers do something similar with their computer setups, selecting programs that simply shows text: no menus, no fonts, no styles, maximized workspace so that they  cannot see the other programs that beckon for their mouse clicks. It is unlikely that most consumers will make that effort to use ther tools in such a precise manner. That is the very distinction between power users and regular consumer users.

And this is what I mean by the Nook Tablet signaling the end of a bookcentric reading demographic. No, I am not discounting genre readers. But I think the segmentation is between “literary”/”genre” readers vs. the mass of non-readers. it has always been thus. Think about the books on the NY Times bestsellers: I am sure any aficionado can suggest better alternatives within a particular genre. The most popular books are not always the best books.

However, I’m not worried about some abstract notion of quality; I do worry that book sellers and publishers who treat literature as a market (and it is their right to do so) will not exercise the selectivity that could result in good literature. I am not saying that popular books are all bad, and that good literary works can’t be popular. I am saying that shrewd business men who happen to have chosen to make their money in publishing (although one might argue that making money from books isn’t so shrewd) will make decisions based on the bottom line. This will lead to decisions that won’t make sense for book lovers, but might sense if one is simply trying to capture dollars from non-readers.

So we will see sellers use the internet to the best they can: data mining, marketing to niches, fine slicing of market segments, i.e. a continuation of market splintering. The mass market  won’t be literary minded people, who enjoy reading for its own sake, and perhaps with broad interests. I guess I am saying that there are fewer cross genre readers than there are consumers who are simply satisfy their narrow interests among different media types. Hey, we can’t expect anything from free market econonmics, geared to finding the cheapest way to pull in the biggest income.

And so a book seller sees a need to build an ereader that is actually a general purpose computer (i.e. Nook Color and Nook Tablet.) I suppose the Nook Color is a book-centric tablet, but with each update, it’s gained multimedia functions. That is what is demanded and needed to compete with Amazon and Apple’s iPad. This point is underscored by popular e-book bloggers and publishing industry watchers. In fact, Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader prefers the Nook Tablet to the Kindle Fire because of the Nook’s media capabilities.

There is no conspiracy or malice. Just a bunch of smart people, doing the best they can to make the most money for their companies. They wind up selecting the biggest market segments and cater their wares to them. Consumers will buy products that they think will serve them best. And so we’ll see more e-books that are app like, with embedded videos, music, links, and interactive figures. The concept of a linear, comprehensive narrative will be superceded by apps amenable to updates and upgrades. I’m not immune to this; I can see how attractive having an interactive Cat in the Hat story app would be to a child. But then these aren’t “books” in the traditional sense, nor are they even “e-books”. They are book based apps.

Is this bad? Not from a market standpoint. It’s probably where the money’s at. And I’d be the last person to begrudge another his ability to make money to feed his family. I’m not even decrying the fact that we aren’t practicing wisdom, but leaning on market research, in choosing the products we make and sell. It’s like choosing a web search engine (Bing? Google?), an app market ecosystem (Google’s? Amazon’s? Barnes and Noble’s? Apple’s?), a cloud storage service (Dropbox? Ubuntu One?), or an OS (Win? Linux? MacOS?). Each choice leads to a different array of probabilities and paths one can take. It also tells companies how they can behave in order to capture our choices and dollars. And because the momentum of the mass market is towards apps and general purpose computers – not ebook readers, that’s exactly where we will end up.

Harry Connolly put up a guest post* over at Charlie Stross’s blog. Connolly writes,

Well, my book is new. My latest novel came out yesterday and I’ve been surprised by the way sales are running on Amazon.com. It’s a huge difference from last year when the early ebook and pbook sales were pretty much neck and neck.

This year it’s not even close. Early orders for the Kindle edition of Circle of Enemies have been much, much higher than the physical book. The ebook cracked Amazon.com’s Contemporary Fantasy bestseller list while sales rank for the mass market paperback barely moved out of five figures. A number of readers also told me that they ordered digital versions of the book after being unable to find it in a brick-and-mortar store on release day.

 

He thinks that e-books may not cannibalize all book sales. In his case, he sees a greater loss in mass market paperback sales than in hardcover or paperbacks.

 

* Warning: rickroll after the link.

I have no desire to rehash arguments made by many others, in and out of publishing, or who have published with big or small press, about the good and the bad of e-books. Instead, I offer some observations from Teleread (e-books continue to show an increase in sales and that, as a form, books are undergoing changes – thank you, Chris Meadows and Paul Biba for the links) and The Digital Reader.

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Yesterday, I went to Porter Square Bookstore to attend a reading by Tom Perotta (The Leftovers). I am a fan of Perotta’s (I had some reviews from Goodreads that I haven’t yet reproduced here. I managed to repost my essay on Perotta’s Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher.) While self-contained (it was one about two men, one of whom reaches out to the other to provide comfort), it did not seem too compelling to me. Instead, I found the book jacket description to be more interesting: a lot of people vanish (Rapture style). How do the people who are left behind cope (in the absence of an explanation as to why the vanishing happened?)

There were not many questions about his books, per se. There were two involving the profit motive: one person asked if it was any easier to get a second book published. Another asked if he now writes with an eye to screen adaptations. For the latter, Perotta noted that, after Election, the movie, was released, Hollywood seemed excited by the prospects of his College Joe. The book disappointed that crowd in that it was not the slapstick, raunchy comedy people were expecting. As for Little Children, Perotta would have marked that as one of the least likely books to be adapted (an ensemble piece, with a plot about a child molester). The director, however, really wanted it made.

To tie it into this post: One woman asked Perotta how he thought about ebooks, whether he feels they provide an opportunity or if he sees it as a threat. Perotta, like in his books, seemed to give a fair answer. He acknowledged that there are opportunities for authors: new authors can be published, while established authors will never go out of print. His tone, posture, and rushed ending to that statement suggested to me that he understood the virtues of ebooks rationally, he did in fact feel threatened. He did not rail against ebooks. He realized that the medium is undergoing a transition; in the short term, he is satisfied that there is a place for books. His evidence? He gave his reading in a bookstore, which is acting as a forum for readers and authors to interact. More emphasis was given to the fact that he was comfortable in the publishing world. He grew up reading words on paper, and that’s his comfort level. It seems his point is that paper book readers have a culture, and that e-book readers will eventually form a different sort of culture from the one he has known.

I think our current conception of e-books is actually limited, to some extent, by the adoption of the Kindle. The Kindle is a translation of paper to screen. A number of features mimic what people can do with paper (marking pages, writing notes) while improving on others (such as whole book search, storing large collections of titles). But the e-ink technology (in the current black/white, slow screen refresh state) lends itself to be treated like a book.

With the iPad and NookColor, we are beginning to see reshaping of content to fit the color screen of a portable computer. The popularity of the Kindle may have stemmed from its familiarity to the printed word. Sooner or later, e-books will diverge from this current form (book like presentation), turning into slick interactive, multifaceted presentations (probably some hybrid wiki-page/HTML5/video/music extravaganza). We are already seeing that in the Dr. Suess books being converted to iPad and Android apps. It is ironic in that many have tried to expand on the book form (think Griffin and Sabine books, and the Dragonology series) only to bypass it altogether.

I think what is lost in attacks and defense of ebooks is the concept of technology creating culture. Neil Postman, Mark Helprin, and Nicholas Carr have made these points. Technology is neutral in the sense that humans can decide on its immediate use. We also have the ability to select among a great number of tools. However, the authors I cited here make compelling arguments that we are also shaped by our tools. We may not select the proper tool (if we are holding a hammer, it won’t help us with set-screws.) And tools can limit how we approach a task (hence the cliche of, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) They take the argument a step further; technologies that alter language can literally alter how we think.

I don’t think it is controversial to say that humans are generally intellectually adaptable. Postman et al. argue that we are much more malleable than assumed, and to our detriment. Online activity in the mobile age, googling, clicking links, video-centric delivery, and short texts (shorthand, abbreviations, two-sentence paragraphs) tend to promote shallow scanning. One might counter that, if a person is inclined, he will delve deeper. Postman et al. counter, no, they won’t. The nature of Internet presentation, they argue, will make it less likely for people to ruminate, to read deeply, and to think in the silence of their own heads. It is easier to follow the next link.

Of the three, I think Postman gave a framework for dealing with technology. In both Amusing Ourselves to Death and Conscientious Objections, he argues that new technology is here to stay (at the time, he was writing about the pervasiveness of television), and we need to be aware that all such communication altering technologies has the capacity to reshape the way we think. We must take care to exploit its virtues while limiting its disadvantages. In other words, control the technology lest it controls us. What was interesting is that he argued that TV isn’t bad because it provides salacious entertainment. TV is most pernicious when it aspires to teach and to serve as a forum public discourse.

Not just television, but effective television presentation, comes with visual excitement and change. This is the opposite of the arguments one can develop in excruciating detail in a book. One can compare a book (even better, read many books) on global warming to an Al Gore movie or to inane 5-minute segments in television news. Postman would simply prefer that we realize that a 5-minute segment is the worst way  of dealing with complex arguments. It simply isn’t enough, especially given the scientific literature on the subject matter. What TV is suited for, Postman notes, is an entertaining 5 minute segment. Something to make you laugh or cry and enjoy; something with impact, translatable into sensational imagery – sound is no longer enough. Instead, we are concluding that audio-visual presentations (whether on TV or in Youtube videos) comprise  the main solution, rather than a portion. It isn’t that we do not what the limits of technology are; we do not ask if we are using the right tool.

I agree with this assessment. Now, when I peruse textbooks that are written for college students (in neuroscience), I note all the missing pieces of information. Not just nuanced counterarguments, but  complete series of compelling experimental evidence that points to alternative theories. And that happens even in a 700-page textbook. Imagine how much can be lost by reduction into sound-bytes (not compressed, since it implies that the total information is there but reformed into a more efficient notation.) Television has shortened political debates into  short oral bursts (hopefully, with visuals), because its strength is in providing ever changing stimulation. The Internet will reshape reading on a screen, emphasizing scanning, clicking and instant look-up, not necessarily understanding or retention, since the information is always at hand. The new “smart” will be in constructing proper search terms.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, though. As Postman and Carr suggest: be aware of what is happening to you (although I am paraphrasing liberally; they devalue this type of intelligence. I am willing to redefine what intelligence ought to be in this brave new world of ours). Maybe, one can simply use the search engine to find the proper book.

As a final aside: here’s another take on what we can lose. Scintillating intellectual conversation. I was browsing through the stacks at Porter Square Books and saw that there is a new collection of essays from Christopher Hitchens. The book jacket blurb seemed to have a pertinent statement: Hitchens combines intelligence, wit, a huge store of knowledge, the ability to recall from this “offline” repository, and charm. That description does sound like someone who would make a wonderful dinner companion. I can certainly see how conversational flow can be ruined if all of us are googling into our phones. But I sense a hint of elitism in that; for my part, I have a (I hope relatively idiosyncratic) collection of stories about science, quantum mechanics, Richard Feynman, mathematical gambling analysis, gadgets, statistical analysis, novels, World War II, microscopy techniques, and 19th-century European history running in my head. And that’s just a thin slice of what I know. Whether I am good company depends on the people I am with, how well I present my thoughts, and how receptive they are to them. I think the point is that, simply, Hitchens and I (and others) have chosen to remember different things. Maybe the cultural gatekeepers are just annoyed so many people choose to remember something different than they do?

Is curation important? I think so, but only in the sense that it plays to our virtues. We are not indexing machines like Google’s data containers. What we do remember are things associated with great emotional impact. That helps us perform single-trial learning (to, if we are lucky, avoid in the future things that hurt or almost killed us), but in this age, it can help us identify meaningful cultural objects. It may be reflected in the fact that we prefer people tell us of formative events that shaped their lives, rather than a considered answer as to the sequence of life’s happenings that let their lives unfold the way it did.

All this is a way of saying that, I agree with Perotta that reading culture will change. Since I am so comfortable with both paper and digital screen, I do not feel the same loss that Perotta does. I know there are readers out there like me: those who feel comfortable in a library, a bookstore, or on bn.com/ebooks. I pack paper books and my NookColor for trips. I write marginalia in books I own, and I upload my notes to Evernote when I read e-books. But are we the most common sort of e-book readers? No idea; I am not sure what the dominant form of e-book reading culture will be.

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