more on book technologies, or, “the book is like a hammer”

Just after my last post, a few more items related to books and technologies came across my radar. (Okay, most of those items were in the Sunday New York Times, but I do spend a lot of my Sundays reading the newspaper.) Some quick mention of them here, then.

First up was an opinion piece by James Gleick about digital books and traditional publishing. There’s been a lot of gloom and doom about the end of the book. Most of it is ridiculous: books are not dying, they are not about to disappear. But there are some things that are definitely shifting: book sales are down (though I’d say that has less to do with competition from digital texts and more from poor publishing and bookselling practices, in which there has become less and less room for individual taste and outliers) and textbook costs are ridiculously high. What I like about Gleick’s piece is his recognition that books are two things: physical objects and texts.

As a physical object, the technology of books is brilliant. The Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge Device joke from an earlier post gets at exactly how amazingly books do their job. As Gleick puts it,

As a technology, the book is like a hammer. That is to say, it is perfect: a tool ideally suited to its task. Hammers can be tweaked and varied but will never go obsolete. Even when builders pound nails by the thousand with pneumatic nail guns, every household needs a hammer. 

He’s not interested in fetishizing the book as an object, but in recognizing its utilitarian value:

Now, at this point one expects to hear a certain type of sentimental plea for the old-fashioned book — how you like the feel of the thing resting in your hand, the smell of the pages, the faint cracking of the spine when you open a new book — and one may envision an aesthete who bakes his own bread and also professes to prefer the sound of vinyl. That’s not my argument. I do love the heft of a book in my hand, but I spend most of my waking hours looking at — which mainly means reading from — a computer screen. I’m just saying that the book is technology that works. 

But Gleick also points out that there are some texts that are better delivered through a different technology. Encyclopedias are at the top of his list, and phone books. The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps the best example of a book that delivers its text now extraordinarily well digitally–the OED would not be as flexible and wide-ranging of a tool as it now is if it only existed in its multi-volume, occasionally published paper form.

I’m not going to go into the agreement that Google has struck with the Authors Guild, which is where Gleick goes. But Gleick makes some good points that just as the technologies for delivering text and information change, it does not necessarily mean that the technology that is the book disappears. Indeed, perhaps it means that the purpose of that technology–to deliver text–can take on a new life and reach a new audience. Books want to be read. I have a hard time being against new ways of making more texts reach more people.

So if Gleick focuses on the technological purpose of books as text and information delivery systems, elsewhere in the Times, the Style writers suggest the value of books as objects to be objectified. In their gift-giving guide (perfect gifts for less than $250!!), books crop up twice as great holiday presents.

First is the recommendation that “Old best sellers are affordable first editions. Assorted titles from $50.” It’s helpfully illustrated with a photo of Rabbit is Rich, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, and Mona Lisa Overdrive (no information is provided on whether we should infer we should stick with dead, or nearly dead, white men, or if other best-selling authors will do).

Second, and much more weird, are “Classics that are a snap to read. Book covers painted on wood, $150, by Leanne Sharpton” with pictures of The Call of the Wild, The Master and Margarita, Tess of the d’Ubervilles, and Oliver Twist. I’m not sure what to make of them, or of the juxtaposition between the $50 first editions and the $150 wood blocks. Read one, I guess, and display the other. Although I suspect the editors have in mind displaying both.

Personally, if I’m going to be buying a book as an object, I’m going to go with a purse. Caitlin at Rebound Designs turns old, unwanted books into purses. It’s the ultimate pocketbook! I have one that features square dancers, but there are a wide variety from which to choose, and she’ll even do custom orders. Plus, if you want, she’ll give you the guts of the book along with the purse made from its covers. Now that’s technology!


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