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Arts and Culture

Steve Wasserman on the Fate of Books After the Age of Print

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Posted on Mar 5, 2010
cover

By Steve Wasserman

(Page 4)

But even a cursory look at the history of reading reveals that people have been reading in precisely this way for a very long time. Darnton cites one William Drake, “a voracious reader and bit player in the conflicts that convulsed England from 1640-1660. Drake understood reading as digestion, a process of extracting the essence from books and of incorporating them into himself. He favored bite-sized bits of text, which could be useful in their application to everyday life. Reading, he felt, should be aimed at helping a man get ahead in the world and its most helpful chunks came in the form of proverbs, fables, and even the mottoes written into emblem books” and carefully copied into the commonplace journals Drake so scrupulously kept. He was not alone. “Early modern Englishmen seem clearly to have read in the same way—segmentally, by concentrating on small chunks of text and jumping from book to book, rather than sequentially, as readers did a century later, when the rise of the novel encouraged the habit of perusing books from cover to cover.” “Segmental reading,” concludes Darnton, “compelled its practitioners to read actively, to exercise critical judgment, and to impose their own patter on their reading matter.”

Our ancestors, as historians of reading have noted, lived in different mental worlds and so too must they have read differently. We know, as Darnton has written, that “reading itself has changed over time. It was often done aloud and in groups, or in secret and with an intensity hard to imagine today.” It was one thing to unfurl a scroll, it was quite another to leaf through a codex. “Texts shape readers’ responses. Typography as well as style and syntax determine the ways in which texts convey meaning. The history of reading is arguably as complex as the history of thinking.” Or, to put it another way, just as different languages offer entirely different ways of understanding the world, so too must different ways of reading suggest different ways of apprehending the world. Reading is, writes Darnton, a mystery: “How do readers make sense of the signs on the printed page? What are the social effects of that experience? And how has it varied?” And how will the arrival and ubiquitous spread—indeed the likely coming hegemony of the World Wide Web—affect and shape the very ecology of communications and our habits of attention and comprehension? Does the ethos of acceleration prized by the Internet diminish our capacity for deliberation and enfeeble our capacity for genuine reflection? Does the daily avalanche of information banish the space needed for actual wisdom?  “Change is good” is the mantra heard everywhere. Perhaps that is so, but arguably only up to a point. 

 

book cover

 

The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future

 

By Robert Darnton

 

PublicAffairs, 240 pages

 

Buy the book

Although the printed book continues to dominate the marketplace, it no longer holds pride of place as the only possible kind of book. Today, if Bill Gates were to offer up a new visionary work, he might well first post his prognostications as an e-book. Few readers would consider his sentences any less worthy or his ideas somehow less serious by having been conveyed through a technology invented the day before yesterday. Not very long ago it was thought no one would read a book on a computer screen. That now is demonstrably wrong.

The fear that literature itself is under siege may also be misplaced. Perhaps new forms of literary accomplishment will emerge, every bit as rigorous and as pleasurable and as enduring as the vaunted forms of yesteryear. After all, does anyone hold the haiku in contempt? Perhaps the discipline of tapping 140 characters on Twitter will one day give birth to a form as admirable and as elegant as haiku was at its height. Perhaps the interactive features of graphic display and video interpolation, hyperlinks and the simultaneous display of multiple panels made possible by the World Wide Web will prompt new and compelling ways of telling each other the stories our species seems biologically programmed to tell. And perhaps all this will add to the rich storehouse of an evolving literature whose contours we have only just begun to glimpse, much less to imagine.

We’re not yet there, of course. The predicted paperless world has yet to materialize. By one measure, the old world of book publishing is robust: According to Bowker’s Global Books in Print, 700,000 new titles appeared worldwide in 1998, 859,000 in 2003, and 976,000 in 2007. Soon a million new books will be published every year. One is tempted to say that almost no new work, however mediocre, goes unpublished. And now that technology has democratized the means of production, the cost of producing a book is within reach of nearly every aspiring author. The arrival and increasing sophistication of the Internet is steadily democratizing the means of distribution, rendering traditional bookstores increasingly irrelevant.

The debate over the means by which books are published is, of course, terribly important for publishers worried about profit margins, the habitual ways of conducting their business, and the looming threat of obsolescence. Authors and their agents are understandably anxious. For many readers, however, much of this debate is sterile. For them, what counts is whether and how books will be made available to the greatest number of consumers at the cheapest possible price. Whether readers find books in bookstores or on the Web, or can access them on an application on the smartphones that are already in their pockets by the scores of millions, matters not at all. Content and cost and ease of access rule.

III

Even a cursory glance at the landscape of contemporary publishing makes it hard not to believe we are living at the apotheosis of cultural literacy. Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented and sold for reasonably low prices, been available to so many people. You would need several lifetimes over doing nothing but reclining in a semi-darkened room just to make your way through the good books that are on offer.

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By Matt Spencer, May 3, 2012 at 1:00 am Link to this comment

Personally, I doubt e-books will completely replace paperbacks and cause the print industry to completely collapse. While the demand for e-books is increasing, the decrease in demand for paperbacks is not necessarily proportional. E-books and paperbacks can co-exist, and I believe there are and will be many who can appreciate and read both. I personally have a Kindle and still read paperbacks on a regular basis.

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By Anarcissie, March 9, 2010 at 9:26 am Link to this comment

Xntrk, March 7 at 5:13 pm:
‘Anarcissie, You refer to the Kindle as if it is the only e-reader. ...’

I was replying to someone else who said that when we all had electronic books Big Brother would come along and wipe out or jigger our files.  As far as I know only Kindle permits this.

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By jon_e_7, March 8, 2010 at 4:26 pm Link to this comment

In an atypical display of patience and tolerance I suffered through to the finale of this opus. I assume you are paid by the word.

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By gerard, March 7, 2010 at 10:03 pm Link to this comment

Virginia, I probably should have said “physical experiences” or experiences of the body, or something like that, meaning experiences we are physically active in or that effect emotions through bodily sensations. Or—maybe that’s not right either.  Difficult point. It somewhat depends on a person’s ability to imagine and empathize also.

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By marcus medler, March 7, 2010 at 5:18 pm Link to this comment

writer on the storm   I went to your suggested
link and read the article. It left out arguments
as well. I suppose they did this to make a point
of bashing the publishers, which some certainly
deserve. I remember when people went in
droves to WalMart, especially in small towns, to
save a penny. If one lesson Sam taught well it
was, “people are willing to screw their
neighbor”. My take on the fight that publishers
are having with WalMart- oops amazon- is that
they want to be in control of pricing, for many
reasons besides profit. Monopoly is the goal for
mass ‘retail’ marketers. Publishers know better,
like movie makers they want to keep a high
interest in their and other’s product since each
is a creative or unique item and they have an
uneven ability to predict let alone channel the
big hit.

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By Virginia777, March 7, 2010 at 4:23 pm Link to this comment

gerard: “Some people hold the word “virtual” in contempt as “not real”.  True so far as emotional experiences are concerned”

Actually, not true. I feel the virtual world connects directly to people’s brains, their psyche’s, it is extremely effective communication and yes, elicts real emotional experiences, very real.

That can be good, but it is also very bad, because it makes the internet the best brain-washing tool ever invented.

And it is unregulated.

You are dead-on that this phenomena needs immediate study.

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By Xntrk, March 7, 2010 at 1:13 pm Link to this comment

Anarcissie, You refer to the Kindle as if it is the only e-reader. It is not. There are some European ones as well as the Sony etc. I shopped quite awhile before I bought. I avoided Kindle and other ones that have ‘cloud’ libraries. Once Amazon took back 1984 [of all books] with no notice or even a please, I decided, no matter how heavily advertised, it was not for me.

The one I bought has a large built in memory, plus an SD card. It reads Adobe Digital, or any PDF file, and the SD card lets you share books with friends. The battery has a fairly long life, and it uses e-ink, like the Kindle. It also came with a leather cover, and you can buy other, fancy, bells and whistles.

I shop carefully on-line. Since I usually buy used books, or trade for them, I don’t need the latest best seller very often. I did buy Barbara Kingsolver’s latest [Lacuna] tho. It’s a novel about Trotsky, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and an American/Mexican with dual citizenship, which moves much of the action to the US after Trotsky’s assassination. It covers the 2nd WW and McCarthy Era too. I have a good biography of Trotsky [that’s the title], and the Lacuna covers his life and death in Mexico pretty accurately. It was a splurge, and I don’t regret it.

That said, I bought the e-reader because I have arthritis so bad in my hands that they cramp if I hold a book for any length of time. When you start weighing a book - new or used - before you buy, it’s time to get an e-reader, unless you prefer audio books, which I don’t. If I hadn’t abused my hands over the years, and if I led a more sedentary life today, I’d still be getting books from the traders at the market.

Turns out using one’s hands in place of tools, in an effort to save time and a few steps, is a mistake. Your thumbnail will work as a screwdriver, and you can beat some things into submission with the heel of your hand. It’s too bad the cost is so high if you do…

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By Xntrk, March 7, 2010 at 1:05 pm Link to this comment

Anarissie, You refer to the Kindle as if it is the only e-reader. It is not. There are some European ones as well as the Sony etc. I shopped quite awhile before I bought. I avoided Kindle and other ones that are ‘cloud’ libraries. Once Amazon took back 1984 [of all books] with no notice or even a please, I decided, no matter how heavily advertised, it was not for me.

The one I bought has a large built in memory, plus an SD card. It reads Adobe Digital, or any PDF file, and SD card lets you share books with friends. The battery has a fairly long life, and it uses e-ink, like the Kindle. It also came with a leather cover, or you an buy other bells and whistles.

I shop carefully on-line. Since I usually buy used books, or trade for them, I don’t need the latest best sellewr very often. I did buy Barbara Kingsolver’s latest [Lacuna] tho. It’s a novel about Trotsky, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and an American/Mexican with dual citizenship, which moves much of the action to the US after Trotsky’s assassination. It covers the 2nd WW and McCarthy Era too. I have a good biography of Trotsky [that’s the title], and the Lacuna covers his life and death in Mexico pretty accurately. It was a splurge, and I don’t regret it.

That said, I bought the e-reader because I have arthritis so bad in my hands that they cramp if I hold a book for any length of time. When you start weighing a book - new or used - before you buy, it’s time to get an e-reader, unless you prefer audio books, which I don’t. I I hadn’t abused my hands over the years, and led a more sedentary life today, I’d still be getting books from the traders at the market. Turns out using ones hands in place of tools in an effort to save time and a few steps, is a mistake. Your thumb nail will work as a screw driver, and you can beat some things into submission with the heel of your hand. Too bad the cost is so high if you do…

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By DreJr1983, March 7, 2010 at 11:22 am Link to this comment

Well I do not think that if someone told you that all they read are “Spiderman” comics that anyone would take them as a serious intellectual person. Yes, in the grand scheme reading anything is better than reading nothing at all. But there has to be something said for quality as well. As far as “classics” go, that’s always up for debate. I can’t for the life of me understand any merit for reading anything Jane Austen or Edith Wharton, give me an Ayn Rand and I’m happy.

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By DreJr1983, March 7, 2010 at 11:22 am Link to this comment

Well I do not think that if someone told you that all they read are “Spiderman” comics that anyone would take them as a serious intellectual person. Yes, in the grand scheme reading anything is better than reading nothing at all. But there has to be something said for quality as well. As far as “classics” go, that’s always up for debate. I can’t for the life of me understand any merit for reading anything Jane Austin or Edith Wharton, give me an Ayn Rand and I’m happy.

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By Anarcissie, March 7, 2010 at 8:47 am Link to this comment

It depends what you want to read.  If you want to read the entire body of Classical Latin and Greek literature, it’s online with parallel translations and hyperlinked dictionaries and notes.  (Sanskrit, too, if you’re really hard-core.)  Most of the great classics of English literature can be found on the site of the Gutenberg Project and other similar sites.  Needless to say there is an enormous body of religious and philosophical literature, going back to the original texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Arabic, and so on, with a variety of translations and commentaries.  There is also a lot of more modern writing, available free, and more all the time. 

Should you strongly desire to read from paper, however, you can find books from new, used and antiquarian bookstores all over the world which it would be impossible to visit even in a lifetime.

But if what you want is the latest piece of junk, like, say, The DaVinci Code, you’ll probably have to pay through the nose, mostly because people are willing to pay it.  The same has been true of paper books, however—frothy stuff was and is earnestly bound on high-quality paper as if it were scripture and sold at a high price; the text is deliberately held away from the paperback market in order to extract all that can be obtained from people willing to pay for the hardbound book.

It’s hard to break a set-up like this because the marks seem to actually enjoy being conned, the whole Kindle business being a case in point.  But that’s how the free market works—if they can get you to pay, they’ll charge you the price.  It’s not something peculiar to the Internet or other electronica.

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By WriterOnTheStorm, March 6, 2010 at 9:51 pm Link to this comment

For the fearless already reading e-books, here’s an interesting link about the
profit margins for e-books versus traditional ones:

http://www.fair.org/blog/2010/03/02/read-the-chart-not-the-nyt-article-to-
get-the-straight-dope-on-book-profits/

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By Anarcissie, March 6, 2010 at 3:58 pm Link to this comment

Kindle is an infinitesimally small, bad part of the Net.  It will change or disappear.  As for finding things, I recommend something called “Google” which you may have heard rumors of.

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By Samson, March 6, 2010 at 2:52 pm Link to this comment

This is the most information rich age in known human history.  Billions of people from around the world have free-er and faster access to information than ever before.

Yet, a bunch of people who think that ‘knowledge’ is reading some dusty old printed book that everyone agrees is some ‘classic’ wants to moan and groan about everyone else being ‘illiterate’.

I’m sure the carvers of words on stone tablets said the same things about how when people stopped reading their rocks .... that it was going to be the end of civilization because everyone knows that all well-informed people had always read stone tablets.

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By marcus medler, March 6, 2010 at 1:55 pm Link to this comment

I second lost hills comments. To the public the
kindle is a novelty, to the capitalist(bully) it is a
gold mine. They are not doing this for you.  E-
book authors, good luck finding readers who are
not relatives in the morass of electronic “bits”.
The tech. side of this new trick(tech). you—you-
- yes YOU are only a series of electrons ,01,0.

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By DreJr1983, March 6, 2010 at 1:36 pm Link to this comment

I think it is a sorry state of affairs when society no longer reads books. I am not the best when it comes to the “rules of grammar” myself, at 26 I still could not tell you when to use a : or ; , and tons other finer points. And of course run on sentences. But reading is absolutely essential for a democracy to function properly. I suspect that vast reason why America is moronic, is because many people don’t have the time to read, and there is too much visual media. It takes more work to read an entire New York Times, than it does to watch “Faux News”...Americans are in a word “L A Z Y” when it comes to exercising most of their intellect. When we are not bothered with news stories about Tiger Woods’ many women, or sons sitting on father’s lap telling planes which run way to use. The whole entire concept of investigative journalism seems to be complete shit now. We never get full stories from politicians, whom seem to never read complete bills that become law. We have what a prision population where well over 2/3 can’t read and we imprision roughly over 2 million people. We know for a fact that almost 65% of young kids who cant read have like a 70% chance of going to prison. It just seems like reading will solve all of our socioeconomic problems, and lower crime rates etc…but yet everytime you turn around we drastically cut education budgets and yet we seem to always increase funding for penal systems. Truth is more likely that the prison system is alot more profitable than educating a given population. Just take it here in the state of VA where there is strong consideration from cutting that budget. With what the state will have kicked out for the 2 wars…28.3 BILLION dollars since 2001. Healthcare for 7,935,772 for 12 months. Our population estimate for 2009 was (7,882,590)...so that means everyone in the damned state…could’ve had free 100% free for 12 months. NOW THATS HOW YOU TAKE CARE OF WORKING FAMILIES. With well more than coverage for another 100k people or so. See all the power reading has?? But alas transplanted NEW YORKER living in the south. Sure the people are friendlier, but woefully ignorant. And all of America is becoming dumber. The writing is on the myspaces, blogs, and wrapped in reality tv all over the place.

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By Xntrk, March 6, 2010 at 12:14 pm Link to this comment

John Ellis, I am confused? Why do you assume the Working Class and Poor are stupid and ‘slow, rather than ignorant? I grew up in a less than ideal situation also. So what? Saying workers and the poor are ‘dumb’ [not deaf?] is really bigoted.

Some of the smartest and most well read people I know can be found among the Longshoremen in Seattle, or in the shops of the many small manufacturing plants I’ve worked at.

Not wearing a suit and tie does not mean one is stupid!

Also, my reference to the ‘lack of discipline’ was aimed directly at the ‘Middle Class’ who pamper their kids, and ignore bad manners and behavior.

I once saw a mentally challenged kid being terrorized by a couple of bigger kids with with a ‘gun’, which was actually a stick. I grabbed the bigger kids each by an ear and dragged them home. One parent was angry with me for being upset when the kids were only ‘playing’. The other was angry with his kid [and rightly so]. As I left, he was saying “Stick? I’ll show you stick!”.

Excusing bullying and poor behavior only teaches the kid that it is ok!

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By Anarcissie, March 6, 2010 at 10:18 am Link to this comment

LostHills—most of your statements about the electronic media are incorrect, as people can easily find out by investigating the subject.  So what’s the point of making them?

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By David Caldwell, March 6, 2010 at 9:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If sales are down in fiction it is because of what is being published and no other reason, the idiotic plot driven mind numbing nothingness selected by 22 year old agent assistants who have no idea of the musicality of words, or how to construct a world and draw a reader in, smitten by a sense of wonder that only
happens in long lush prose paragraphs transcribed by geniuses in moments of divine grace.

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By LostHills, March 6, 2010 at 9:26 am Link to this comment

After a real book is sold for the first time many other people may read it for many
years. They can be circulated for free or resold for a couple hundred years or
more, long after they have become “out of print” and their authors have died. In
some cases a book may be read hundreds or even thousands of times before it
falls apart and read by folks who couldn’t afford to buy it. E-publishing relegates
reading to an affectation of the affluent And it also makes it easy for those within
the power structure to edit and censor works without the authors’ permission or
knowledge. It’s a tool for dumbing down the populace, controlling access to
knowledge and limiting the free exchange of ideas. In the future clandestine
printing presses may be the most powerful weapons in the new 3rd world. Power
to the presses!

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By fatima.ahtesham, March 6, 2010 at 6:41 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks for sharing this

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By Xntrk, March 5, 2010 at 9:24 pm Link to this comment

I admit it. I am a reading addict. I collect BOOKS. I display them. I spend hours lurking in book stores, and sometimes buy so many, I cannot carry them all.

I also have an E-Reader [not a Kindle]. It beats the problem of not being able to read a book because it is too heavy to hold. I even read in bed again. I also have discovered classics and out of print books that never caught my eye before. For every throw away I download, I usually get a couple of biographies, or collections of essays by writers I admire. I’ve been reading lots of Twain, and Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Jack London, lately.

To me the E-Book is a welcome bonus, but not the end of beautifully printed and illustrated books. Photo Journalism sucks on the computer screen! The e-reader lacks the size, and colors, needed to display prints and photos - but, it is easy on the eyes when you just want to read.

Cuba celebrated its 19th International Book Fair this year. It’s now touring the Provinces after a ten day run in Havana. When I visited in 2008, I was amazed to see hundreds of average working stiffs and their kids streaming into the Feria Del Libros [free for them - It cost me, as a tourist].

This year they tried something new, they set up ‘Satellite Locations’ featuring different authors and kinds of books. They sold over 380,000 books at the satelites alone!.

Of course, Cuba has 100% literacy, and pretty boring TV programs unless you are into Spanish Language soaps from either the US or Mexico.

I’d advise most of you to take off your blinders. The United States is not the Nirvana we think it is. People in other countries and from different cultures still value literacy and books and reading for enjoyment as well as knowledge. Kids wouldn’t be sitting in front of the TV or game console if their parents exercised a bit of discipline. Sadly, that is about as non-existent as literacy in many of our schools and homes.

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By Anarcissie, March 5, 2010 at 9:21 pm Link to this comment

Nat Segaloff, March 5 at 6:05 pm:
‘Yeah, but, as Wasserman rushes past early on, who’s gonna pay for people to research, write, edit, verify, publish, a distribute this stuff? Otherwise it isn’t writing, it’s typing.’

Which stuff, exactly?

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By marcus medler, March 5, 2010 at 6:41 pm Link to this comment

It is worth noting that no mention was made of
the public library and its demise. Now, “no tax
me,huh ” , loud mouths will be able to close
them. Will a community buy hundreds of kindles?

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By Dr. Bill, March 5, 2010 at 2:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As a retired professor, I would suggest that the publishers of TEXTBOOKS allow the students to pay-as-they-go by letting them purchase a chapter at a time for a reasonamble rate. 

TEXTBOOK (print) $80   15 chapters
1 chapter (download) $1.00
Publishers get $15.00 and no over-runs in warehouses or remainders to dump; thus, lower costs.

Students do not have to stand in line at the bookstore.  They never run out of books. No used copies to store and sell.  WIN WIN WIN

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By ccotieville, March 5, 2010 at 2:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars But in ourselves….

What if technology isn’t killing literature and the habit of reading itself? Reading for pleasure and reading for information both require the assumption that something exists outside our own experience, either in the imagination or in the real world. Just suppose that for some reason - TV, cell phones, Facebook, who knows? - the potential reading “public” has grown so solipsistic that it is no longer interested in anything or anyone with whom it has had no contact (real or feigned). If curiosity has died, why learn anything about earthquakes, much less the Rostov family?

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By Nat Segaloff, March 5, 2010 at 2:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yeah, but, as Wasserman rushes past early on, who’s gonna pay for people to research, write, edit, verify, publish, a distribute this stuff? Otherwise it isn’t writing, it’s typing.

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By diman, March 5, 2010 at 1:46 pm Link to this comment

Who cares, most of the books printed today are garbage
and even if there is a good and useful book that pops
up once in a while, like I said, who cares, people seem
to have lost their ability to question things that they
read about. Twitter is the king these days. Fuck
Twitter!!!

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By omygodnotagain, March 5, 2010 at 12:45 pm Link to this comment

There is an elicit pleasure in curling up with a book especially on a cold day, or on a plane.  Reading on the beach has never felt that way.
Those who love books will never give up books, the smell of bookstores, the search for out of print books, the quiet reverence of libraries.
Mind you I read this web-site mostly on my PDA and there is an elicit pleasure about sitting at a dinner meeting writing a comment like this one, when the thoughts and juices are flowing

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By omygodnotagain, March 5, 2010 at 12:22 pm Link to this comment

“What happens,” asks an executive of the Association of American Publishers, “when 20 to 30 percent of book readers use digital as the primary mode of reading books? Piracy’s a big concern.”

Thats odd I never thought of taking a book out from the library and reading it as piracy..

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By gerard, March 5, 2010 at 11:45 am Link to this comment

Reading the article, and then these few comments so far is a worthwhile exercise in looking ahead—or trying to—and in getting acquainted with others.
  The question of retention interests me greatly because my retention skills are not good and I don’t know why.  Depending on the kind of material, and my relative interest or lack of, I’d say that I feel lucky if I can remember key ideas in any work and can recall how to get back to details I have forgotten or barely remember. 
  I’m always rushing ahead to the next idea and trying to relate what I already “know” to the new or recent material. Ideas of “my own” pop up and ask for attention, at which point I write stuff down and sometimes put it in a recognizeable form later.
  I don’t worry about selling anything I write anymore.  I’ve been published ocasionally here and there, but my careers (plural) have been matters of necessity that could not wait on an editor’s choice.  In that respect, online publishing offers chances to avoid refusal which in my case kills self-confidence.
  I can’t notice any difference in my retention, whether from reading online or in print. The fascinating thing about the net for me is the broad access to just about anything. 
  Some people hold the word “virtual” in contempt as “not real”.  True so far as emotional experiences are concerned.  And yet—one wonders just how accurate that really is.  Watching kids play video games, I ask myself: “How much of that it getting to them and at what level?” I take it from what I’m hearing that it gets pretty far in—far enough to be a good recruiting agent for the military.
  This whole area of emotional response to electronic solicitation—and how “automatic” it may be compared to other forms of solicitation—is a serious subject desperately in need of study before all our kids are helplessly sucked into the war machine before they can think straight.

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By Samson, March 5, 2010 at 11:10 am Link to this comment

Next week, Truthdig will publish an exciting column on what will happen to carved stone tablets after the age of rock carving ends.

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By Anarcissie, March 5, 2010 at 10:07 am Link to this comment

I think the big issue here is not the book, which is a very useful piece of technology which is going to be with us for a long, long time, and not literacy, but the future of the traditional publishing industry and its various satellites in academia and small business.

Traditionally, an author went to a publisher and begged the publisher to buy all of her rights to a text.  If some publishers deigned to do so, they might give the author some money up front and then design, typeset, manufacture and attempt to sell the book.  An investment of several thousand dollars was thus necessary to get the book before the public.  The normal operating procedure of the publishers was to make a number of small bets against long odds; the payoff came with the occasional best-seller, which made up for all the bets (books) that didn’t pay off.

That has already changed.  If you have written a book and you are willing to do the work, you can transcribe it into publishable form on a personal computer and put it on a web site or some other medium of electronic distribution, and everyone in the world will be able to read it.  How this is going to be monetized, if it is going to be monetized, remains something of a question, but there is no doubt that the author can cut out the middlemen—the publishers and the book stores—and deal directly with the consumer.

This is going to cause a crisis in book publishing just as it is doing in the newspaper industry and other media.  In a sense they are the walking dead, because the basis of their business was control of the physical plant used to distribute the material they were purveying.  It is going to be impossible for them to compete with a system whose actual distribution costs are close to zero.

Part of this crisis is a crisis of authority.  Many people are used to having a largely self-appointed elite tell them what to read, listen to, watch, look at, buy, think, believe and so on.  I suppose this elite can sell this service as a product, but it can no longer command it.  Many people will pull their hair out about this.  We can also expect the old media industries to try to use law to forbid the new media from supplanting them, but the history of such tactics is not encouraging for them.  They have generally failed.

I don’t know how this will turn out, but I doubt if predictions of either paradise or doom are going to come true.

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By Bob O"Connor, March 5, 2010 at 9:35 am Link to this comment
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E-books are a welcome sight. In textbooks they either undercut the print books or are free. (California has a program searching for free texts.) And some are interactive—which beats the print books. There are also some outstanding free books, especially in poetry, because poetry is a tough print sell. There are also free ebooks by people who want great exposure, and royalties are not important to them. Many print books do not sell many copies and they are difficult to market. One book, or rather a series, that I was made aware of in China is a combination sci-fi/non-fiction work that deals with a number of society’s problems, like overpopulation and climate change, it is titled ‘And Gulliver Returns’ and is both free on the Net and reasonably priced on Kindle. If authors can do their own copy editing they can bypass the print publishers and have the world as their audiences, with or without the ebook readers. With sites like manybooks.com, allbooksfree.com, and scribd.com reading doesn’t have to be expensive.

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By sharonsj, March 5, 2010 at 9:25 am Link to this comment
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I spent 40 years in the publishing industry and I still prefer a book I can hold in my hands and keep for reference in a library.  A digital book is a pain in the ass.  And when my computer won’t work right, and when the electricity is out or shorts, or if the internet connection box stops working, I’m stopped dead in my tracks.

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By Eso, March 5, 2010 at 8:42 am Link to this comment
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An interesting article, and I enjoyed reading comments of “heavyrunner”.

I have been a sporadic writer, much of my writing and quality depending on how my mind breaks through preconceived notions and habits into new territory. I have self-published some and for about two years now have been writing a series of blogs at http://esoschronicles.blogspot.com/ and elsewhere. Many readers think that my sentences and paragraphs are too long and the thoughts sometimes, I admit, run out of breath. Nevertheless, whatever my faults, I learn from the experience. I add photographs from my everyday environment between paragraphs to offer a mirror into my everyday—even if my other fancy takes you to something that Georges Bataille may have written. For references I use links to YouTube, Google Images, various Google citations, sometimes looking as deep as 30 pages looking for what may to others seem “improbable”.

I live far from the U.S.now, but read books most of which I buy through Amazon, which sometimes cost as much as their mail. The added cost of mail makes no sense. If only there was a format by means of which I could download the book to my printer printing on both sides of the page.

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By prosefights, March 5, 2010 at 8:08 am Link to this comment

Internet may be doomed because of future electricity costs and shortages.

1 kWh = 3412.14163 BTU.

The second law of thermodynamics simply states more heat has to go in than comes out.

The world is facing a serious BTU shortage problem.

BTUs go in and electricity comes out.

Altenergy appears not to have sufficient BTUs in for advertised kWh out, i.e. more than 3412.14163 BTU has to go in for every kWh hour out.

Nuclear-generated electricity looks to have problems because of Uranium shortages.

http://www.energypulse.net/centers/article/article_display.cfm?a_id=2247#jump_comments

Sufficient electricity to even print book may not be available in the future?

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By heavyrunner, March 5, 2010 at 8:01 am Link to this comment

When I was in graduate school in the late 1980s I suggested to my adviser that I try and set up a series of experiments to attempt to determine whether or not reading on the computer screen, CRTs in those days, was any different from reading on paper.  I was particularly concerned to find out if retention was different because I wondered if the ephemeral nature of electronic text influenced the brain in some way causing it to take less seriously that which was read off the computer screen relative to the more permanent text on paper.

My adviser was of the opinion that that was a ridiculous idea and that it was virtually certain that there was no difference in retention or anything else because “reading is reading.”  He made this assumption despite the fact that there was no identifiable research available anywhere on the topic.  My thesis proposal was refused and the research was not done as I had to choose a different topic.

I now make my living selling products on DVD at the visitors centers at the National Parks which I self publish.  They feature my virtual reality photography, but I also create digital versions of the most important classic books which relate to the area.  For example, there are ebook versions of the writings of Major John Westley Powell and Clarence Dutton on my Grand Canyon product.  They are in PDF format, so they can be distributed easily and read on a wide variety of platforms, including the Kindle.  I used to have to find copies of the original editions in university libraries and scan and optical character reconize them, but currently it is usually possible to find the text in some form already digitized on line so I end up just having to lay out the book and add such things as interactive tables of contents and lists of illustrations.

Not long after my reproduction of Clarence Dutton’s “Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District,” which had been out of print for decades and was very difficult to find, selling for $800 a copy and more, someone republished the book in paper format.  Copies of that reproduction sell for $75. 

My entire CD sells for $20.  The Dutton book is surely less than $1 considering that it is just one of the many valuable items on the CD. 

I recently created illustrated digital editions of John Muir’s writings for a Sierra Nevada product that will be out this spring.  In the process I checked to see if Muir’s books are available at Amazon for the Kindle.  They are, and the same book I might be charging $0.75 for Amazon is selling for $0.03.  Three cents!  Download from anywhere to your Kindle!

So I have witnessed classics which are becoming rare in print go from $800 to $0.03 in a matter of ten years or so.  I think this bodes well for the future of access to literature.  When working on the Muir books I didn’t read any of them from paper.  It was possible to find all the text on line, for free.  I did go to a library and have a look at a couple of the titles to see if I wanted to scan the graphics.  I didn’t find original editions and the graphics were degraded from the poor technology which had been used to create the graphics in the later editions, so I ended up not using them.

I have to go over the text exhaustively in creating the digital editions, of course, so that may be a factor in my retention and comprehension in reading Muir, but I feel like reading the books from electronic sources has left me with as much of Muir’s wisdom and insight as if I had read the books printed on paper from my local library.

I think the tone of concern for the future of reading and preservation of culture and knowledge that pervades Mr. Wassermans essay is contradicted by the very nature of the essay itself and the fact that we are reading it via an electric medium.

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By JohnnyOstentatious, March 5, 2010 at 7:10 am Link to this comment

I don’t think e-books will save the publishing industry. People are reading less and less (only about one in ten people I meet read books on a regular basis). Sadly, literature is ailing, on its way to life support—Twittering ignorance will probably pull the plug.

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