Feb 23, 2009

the death of books

ghost rider

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated

- Mark Twain

It seems that some universities are moving away from physical books, switching entirely to electronic textbooks. My initial reaction is that this is just a little bit crazy. Electronic reference materials have a place, but I have a real difficulty with only electronic textbooks as being the best approach. Certainly there is a financial justification and a reduction in the physical weight the students have to carry. There is no doubt an advantage for the book stores, having to carry less physical inventory and ship it around the country.

But none of this takes into account how you interact with a physical book. It just isn't the same having the material online or on a PDF in a laptop. A screen is harder to read (a good laptop screen is still less than 100dpi, books and print are 300dpi or more) and as it is a lower resolution than printed material, you can only see a small amount of the information at a time. Diagrams and accompanying text are often hard to see all in one place. This is part of the reason why reading on a screen can be so tiring. Also the backlit text is harder on the eyes than reading from a page. The second drawback is how you physically interact with a book - flicking quickly through pages, marking pages with a highlighter, inserting post-it notes, curling up in a chair to read a book, spreading several books and notes out across a table. All of these metaphors may eventually be replaced with digital analogues that are as powerful or more so, but it seems we are quite far from that time.

The Amazon Kindle is probably about as good as this gets just now and from what I can tell, it still falls far below a good hunk of printed tree. The Kindle does have a higher resolution screen, which helps with reading for a long time, but the screen is small and the navigation feels clunky. Laptops are worse.

I do find a lot of value in online reference books. I've had a subscription to O'Reilly's Safari for over a year now and have found it to be invaluable, particularly when traveling. I can have access to a variety of reference texts, easily searchable, almost always available (if you have an internet connection). However, I've never been able to read any of the books I have on my Safari subscription, for more than a few pages. It just doesn't seem to work for me. No doubt I'm destined to become a relic in my views on reading, but it seems that we approach reading on a screen differently to a book. I'd love to have some sort of larger Kindle device, linked to a Safari subscription. Some way to really read those books on Safari, rather than just treating them as reference works. It always feels that this is just right around the corner, yet we never quite get there.

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