Thursday, September 27, 2012

Books = paper (hardware) + texts (software) & its the software that matters

Book v scroll
The book, or codex, was invented in the 2nd century AD by early Christians. It is thought that they were keen to distinguish the physical form of their holy book from that of the Jewish Torah, which remains loyal to the scrolled format.Before this the scroll was the dominant form for writing but a scroll had its weaknesses:
1.       needs to be held in both hands
2.       difficult to unroll
3.       rolls on a flat surface
4.       difficult to carry
5.       difficult to store
6.       written only on one side
7.       difficult to navigate to specific place

There were many advantages of the book over the scroll:
1.       hold in one hand
2.       take notes with spare hand
3.       sit on a flat surface
4.       easy to carry
5.       easy to store
6.       pages give sense of place
7.       written on both sides
The book gave the hardware of the book a boost in terms of its software, the text. Page numbers content pages and indexes could all be added to aid navigation.
Scroll v page in learning
This scroll versus page technology divide lives on today in screen technology, where page based web pages live alongside vertical scrolling. We can see this in Wikipedia, with its page structure for entries with scrolling for reading. Window panes add depth making multiple tasks possible. Another interesting scroll versus page structural debate concerns the modern scroll of film, then video. The media of the moving image were literally the technology of reels or scrolls but now handled by delivering fast refresh pages. However, in terms of learning, the distinction between the continuous scrolled presentation of content versus pages under the control of the user, remains a sharp divide. It is still difficult to search and navigate video content for learning purposes. The navigation of forward, back and fast forward remain at the navigational level of ancient scrolls.
Book as hardware
It is useful to separate the hardware and software components of books, as the word ‘book’ has two meanings. First, the whole physical object of paper and text; second, just the text. Authors don’t write books, they write texts. It is publishers who package texts into books by commissioning covers, paper type and weight, font and other features. A book, as hardware, is light, portable and never runs out of battery. It is undoubtedly an attractive, well bound, object that doesn’t break when dropped and is easy to hold for reading. Even its flexibility makes it comfortable to hold or lie on one’s lap when read. The physical pages make it easy to know where you are in a book and how much you’ve completed. Paper, as a reflective medium, is also eminently readable. Block shaped books also makes them easy to store on shelves. There can be no doubt that the physicality of the book contributes to its appeal.
Book as software
The most useful part of a book is, of course, its software, or text. We think of the book as a single text but early books tended to contain a miscellaneous mixture of different texts on different subjects, often in different languages by different authors. Paged books encouraged the development of readable content as texts were:
1.       chunked into chapters & paragraphs
2.       spaced (words and sentences)
3.       punctuated to aid reading
4.       capitalised for sentences & emphasis.
5.       listed by contents
6.       indexed
7.       appendices & bibliographies
All of this took centuries of slow incremental progress. Note that these are features of the text, not the physical book. This is the software, not the hardware. For most of the technological advances in books were either in the process of production (printing, ink and paper) or software improvements.
Book and screen technology
Although the book, as a physical technology, has developed over nearly eighteen centuries into finely-honed, much loved, object, that technology is being challenged by screen based reading and writing. There has been a social explosion of publishing, writing and reading on screens, aided by the internet. This has been boosted by good, readable screen technology, mobile devices and inexpensive e-book readers.
Traditionalists may wave their reading glasses in horror but to turn books into a fetish is simply to deny the inevitable. Real books are great, but let’s not confuse the medium with the content, or hardware with software, namely books with texts. Just as journalists and newspaper owners fail to realise they’re in the ‘news’ not the ‘newspaper’ business, so book fans and publishers sometimes fail to realise that this is about writing and reading, not books. Books are simple a piece of technology.
Just as the book was a hardware improvement on the technology of the scroll, so screen technology is an improvement on the hardware of the physical book. Books destroy trees, require landfill and are expensive to transport and store. In turning atoms into bits, books become weightless, distribution trivial and the problem of storage disappears.
Screen base delivery also puts books in the realm of software control, so that it is easier to:
1.       download
2.       store
3.       search
4.       hyperlink
5.       change font etc.
6.       highlight
7.       comment
We can now see where this can lead us, or more specifically lead us in improving learning. Why lock up knowledge and the ability to learn in libraries, schools and physical books, when we can publish and distribute it at marginal cost to everyone.
Books and learning
There is a tendency to think of books as being an intrinsic good, but many would question the role of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Mao Tse Tung’s Little Red Book as instructive or progressive. Similarly, many would doubt that the literal reading of sacred texts, such as The Bible, Torah and Koran, are always forces for good.
Professor Pierre Bayard ‘s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is a deep analysis of the ambiguous role of readers and books. We take books too seriously, forgetting that many are bought and not read, skimmed or talked about as if they had been read, even forgotten. Bayard throws the book at books.
Books have a special status as ‘almost objects of worship’ and non-readers are stigmatised. Yet reading is often non-reading, as we forget most of what we read, almost as quickly as it is read. As we forge forward, content is forgotten and disappears in the wake of memory. Most reading is forgetting. He’s really on to something here. I habitually underline, mark, comment and summarise on the books I read. Yet it is almost taboo to underline, mark books, and blasphemous to tear out a page or chapter. Life is short and books are long. It’s OK to skim, as many books are padded out to conform to the standard 250 page norm. In fact, for many, the fact that most of what you read will be forgotten, means a summary is adequate.
Academics cook the books
As an academic, he is at his best in describing a world he knows well, where academics discuss and teach books to students who have also not read the book. Teaching pressurises teachers into talking about books they have not read. Students respond by pretending to read long reading lists they never in fact read. Short-cuts are taken by all. It's a game where reading is the facade and non-reading the reality.
Every trick in the book
What’s clever is the way he hauls in authors to support his case. Montaigne’s honest reflections on reading, Oscar Wilde’s ‘100 worst books’ (books we should not read), David Lodge’s expose of the Academy’s dependence on unread books. Umberto Eco, Balzac, Green, Shakespeare, Joyce, Proust and others are all used to build a case, not against books, but against the bogus idea of books as being pure and sacrosanct.
You can’t judge a book by its lover
So reading, and the culture of reading, is not what we think it is. It’s full of deceit, snobbery and false claims. Bayard exposes many of these taboos. Take a leaf out of his book and see reading, not as being synonymous with books, but in all its wonderful variations in terms of style, length, authors and media. New media and self-publishing are tearing apart the myth that reading is synonymous with books. It may well be that reading in many ways has freed itself from the tyranny of books.
The Book (codex) was a superior technology to the scroll and in the form of hand written manuscripts had a good 1200 year run. The printing press scaled up the process of replication and has had another good 500 year run. Building on this, screen based reading has given us another massive boost in scalability, making books weightless, volumeless, easy to distribute and searchable.
What we are witnessing is, perhaps, the death of the book as the dominant form of written expression. A much wider range of forms of expression have emerged. Wikipedia is not really a book in the sense that the Encyclopedia Britannica was a book. Txting, posting, commenting, blogging are challenging the long-form book as the writing and reading medium of choice. Books themselves are being seen as just one form of expression among many.


Ardis said...

this made me think about the similarities between ebooks and scrolls. I love the portability of ebooks but really miss the easy navigation and indexability of books. 'search' just isn't the same.

Donald Clark said...

Good point about indexes. My Kindle has books with indexes but you have to put the page number in and GoTo that page. The problem is the variability of page sizes in a digital reformattable context. This will be solved when indexes hyperlink directly to the word but this requires extra work by the electronic publisher. In the end electronic indexing will solve the problem - just a matter of time.
Bookmarking is one advantage e--book readers have over 'turn down ear of page' approach in physical book. Generally navigation to dictionary etc is superior on e-books. It took nearly 2000 years for the navigational structure of the book to develop. E-books have achieved much in just a few years.