4 min read

On Books, and The Future

I stumbled across a fascinating article last week, called A Defence of the Book, in which the author bemoans the transformation of educational media. In particular, Professor Wall worries that the new technologies that provide content trivially and at low cost, without forcing one to examine the greater context, diminish actual understanding.

I find this a fascinating discussion. I come from a mixed background, in which I voraciously read anything I could get my hands on throughout my youth, excelled in my English courses and then chose a different path for my career, majoring in Physics and Computer Science at University.

I have a complicated relationship with both books and technology. That is, I’ve seen technology do wonderful things, but remain skeptical of it’s oft-vaunted universal curative properties. As for books, I love them deeply, but have long had difficulty with the very concern being illustrated by Professor Wall; I often find it difficult or impossible to absorb much of the material. I find I can read a book, enjoy it immensely and within weeks forget much of what I had found so wonderful. This must be a failure in my method, or else a flaw in my brain, but the end result is that I must acquire new information (I won’t call it knowledge) if not on a Just-In-Time basis, at least shortly in advance of when I will require it practically. For non-practical reading (by which I mean, I suppose, anything not related to my work or some specific short-term task), I often retain only general impressions, or images of particular scenes, but seldom actual passages or, say, the philosophies of each character.

And so of course I have considered that there are ways in which technology might assist someone like me in absorbing what I read, apart from trolling Google and the various news groups for discussions relevant to the book, or accessing scholarly works dissecting or examining the work, neither of which are particularly convenient from my easy chair. Perhaps my use of the word “convenient” has already demolished any hope I have of convincing Professors of English that my arguments have merit, but I can’t help but feel there must be a compromise, that it ought not be required of me to read each book at my desk, with my notebook and references at hand. Or, worse, that I be forced as students once were to practically live in a library, tracking down dusty tomes in the hopes of illumination.

In my pursuit of solutions, I follow technology closely (well, I do that anyway, I suppose) constantly on the lookout for something that meets all of my desires; so far, finding only disappointment. I will not even consider laptops, pocket-PCs, PDAs or the like, as I find them inadequate in too many ways to discuss briefly. Instead, I’ll confine myself to discussing those devices that seek to specifically emulate bound paper, under the general title of “eBooks”.

I have a number of aesthetic issues with these devices, not least of which is a deep affection for the texture and smell of ink and paper, not to mention the heft and solidity of a bound novel. But attachment to the physical attributes of the books are perhaps not germane to the thread we’re following here. To discuss, rather, the functional attributes of books, I’d start with what I think is the most crucial element lacking in current books — electronic and paper both — and that is a robust mechanism for annotation, citation and cross-reference. These are simultaneously those functions that would, I think, go furthest towards improving upon the classical book enough to make the transition to eBooks tolerable, and mitigate my feelings of aesthetic loss.

Consider annotation, in which I might select a passage and write into the document a synopsis of the passage as I understand it, or a reminder to research it more thoroughly, or just an exclamation of joy because the author has so perfectly expressed an emotion or thought. This can all be done non-destructively, and stored right with the content of the book itself, which is not possible with normal books. Of course, I could keep a journal, and I know that many people do, but can’t get past the overhead of managing it, not to mention the impossibility of searching it efficiently or easily linking notes with each other and finally, again, feel that keeping a pen and pad near me at all times while reading is burdensome to the point that I simply won’t consistently keep it up.

For fear that I might continue writing for the rest of the day, I won’t go into depth on the remainder of the potential benefits I perceive, but perhaps can highlight my favorites. Consider books that :

  • contain cross-references to other resources that are specifically related to the current passage, page or chapter, accessible with a single tap of the pen,
  • the ability to join discussions on a text or a passage directly from within the context of the book,
  • the possibility that the author might release an explanation or further comment on a book, or section thereof, which could be downloaded automatically into the reader
  • automatically generated suggestions for further reading, based on the subject matter itself or comments from previous readers, and
  • such low-hanging fruit as an integrated dictionary and thesaurus with sensitivity to the era in which the book was written, and other language tools perhaps specific to the work or author (as with, for example, James Joyce or Gene Wolfe).

And of course all such devices will be capable of storing many books on a single small storage chip, the benefit of which ought to be clear.

I don’t in any way claim the inherent superiority of such a device to a true academic examination of a work of literature (or even a thorough reading of a technical reference or science text). Nonetheless I do believe that it would provide the ability for those without access to, or time for, such intensive study to get far closer to understanding than they might otherwise.

And of course, by “they” I also mean “I”. As I said before, my ability to retain the works that I read would almost certainly increase dramatically. In the meantime, I have two or three (or ten or twelve) new novels I’d like to read, and one or two that it’s time to work through again, in the hope that I’ll finally remember them.