There’s been a really interesting and thought-provoking discussion going on lately about “2.0” topics, spectrums (or rather,” spectra”), print vs. electronic books, and the like. It all started with David Lee King’s Library 2.0 Spectrum, which got so many comments that he wrote a whole post about wanting feedback. Meanwhile Steve Lawson wrote a response (in addition to several comments on David’s posts), Uncontrolled Vocabulary took up the topic, and several other blogs began puzzling out what worked and what didn’t work about the L2 Spectrum.
Well, now the conversation has morphed. Over at See Also, Steve and Dave are hashing out whether a book is a book if it’s not printed on paper. I must say, I didn’t know what to think about that question. Deep down, I’ve always reserved a special place for printed and bound books that is completely separate from manuscripts and eBooks. In my head, these wonderful and time-honored creations have always been Books with a capital B. … And then there were these derivative things called eBooks — sort of like postcards of the Mona Lisa. You know exactly what they are, but you just have to make do with the presentation.
Then David comes along and questions this assumption. He feels that books are books, no matter the format. And that seems like a very reasonable conclusion. You can digitize everything but the paper (and the smell), so what’s the problem? I’d hate to get caught in the trap of putting printed books on a pedestal just because I like the way they feel. And there’s nothing worse than finding yourself falling into the trap of “because that’s the way they’ve always been.” In fact, I’m not sure that I haven’t fallen into that trap, even now.
But something in the comments to Steve’s post struck a chord and I felt compelled to add my own comment to the string, even though I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to say. Steve had made the point that calling the paper and binding of a book a “container” might be too simplifying. He said:
I think my problem with the word “container” is similar to Dorothea’s problem with the word “just” in the post I linked to above. It makes it all sound very simple, very easy, when it isn’t. I can pour my ginger ale from an aluminum can container into a glass tumbler container, and it is still ginger ale. “Pour” Tristram Shandy from a paper book container to a Google scan container, and you no longer have Shandy, you have something else. (cite)
Then, as I typed, I puzzled out what I was thinking. I’m still not sure I’m “right”… but here’s what I wrote (edited only slightly to compensate for sloppy writing):
I think you’re right that the point is that it’s not simple. The point is not so much the words in a row. The point is not so much the placement of pictures, type face, or white space (which is also important). The point is that “containers” are not entirely benign. If they were entirely benign, people wouldn’t pour ginger ale from the can to the glass. There’s something about a glass that’s more comfortable to drink from. The edge feels different on the lips, the spray tickles your nose… the experience isn’t the same. And yet, the ginger ale is still ginger ale.
Ok, so the container matters in this case, but doesn’t change the substance. But what about the case of a Van Gogh painting? Seeing digital reproductions of his work is nothing like seeing the real thing. The colors aren’t as vibrant. The textures of the brushwork are simply shadows rather than spaces. In this case, the “container” changes the work absolutely and fundamentally.
So does the “container” change the substance of a book in the same way that it changes a painting? I’d say, “It depends.”
Ludlum might be a “book” no matter it’s container. Shandy, maybe, not so much. Complex texts are not generally read in as linear fashion as they are written. The words march forward, the same as ever, but my eyes jump back to the top of the facing page, the previous paragraph, the next sentence, almost without breaking the flow of my reading. Complex texts require this type of reading-while-reading as you make sense of them.
Some day, technology might be able to simulate the act of putting a finger on a page in order to mark a point you’re trying to interpret by reading forward. Some day eBook readers might allow the kind of non-linear reading that’s necessary for sense-making. And some day there might be a fully automatic process by which complex texts, these books that have never been anything but Books, can be converted to digital formats. Just like some day we may have digitally reproduced paintings where the experience of the painting isn’t fundamentally changed. (cite)
[Updated to add: I've been thinking more about things that get translated into different formats. Things like music, for instance. Music is one thing that's drastically different live vs. recorded, and yet that's entirely accepted and doesn't phase anyone. So now my question is this: are books more like music or more like paintings? My gut reaction is still that they're more like paintings because they're not a linear experience, while music is always listened to in a metaphorically linear way.]
[Updated again to point to Mark's excellent comment on Steve's post. This reminder helps me a lot! Thanks Mark.]