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People often say that an era is “bookended” by certain events — one ushering it in, the other closing it out. You could argue that the Cold War was bookended by Kruschev pounding his shoe on the table at the United Nations and the fall of the Berlin Wall. You could argue that the 1970s were bookended by the breakup of the Beatles and the appearance of HIV.

But what do you say when an era is bookended by actual books?

C.W. Anderson, a teacher at the College of Staten Island, writes in the Atlantic about putting together a syllabus for a course on “Print Culture.” In so doing, he notes:

Now that the electronic word has become embedded in our lives, we have a new perspective on what might have been special and specific about the last few hundred years of information dissemination.

That is, the Internet, e-readers, email, text messaging, and so forth may have effectively placed the terminal bookend on the print era, so that now we can examine what was special about the era defined by the print book and its offshoots.

Of course, print isn’t dead, and it won’t ever be gone, but its cultural centrality has diminished and continues to move to the periphery. However, Anderson’s syllabus shows us what the culture of print contributed to the advancement of our intellectual lives, as this selection shows:

  • Weeks 3-4: From Orality to Literacy to Print
  • Week 5: The Invention of the Author
  • Weeks 7-8: Copyright
  • Week 9: The Print Network — Bookstores, Libraries, Google
  • Weeks 12-13: The End of Print?

The books Anderson has chosen for his class are fairly definitive, a property of books themselves — the best historical books can provide a firm foundation for future scholarship. The notion of widespread, shared knowledge is another debt we owe to the power of multiple copies with high fidelity to the original — a concept most familiar with the book, but used again and again for movies, records, and so on.

Anderson is wise in his assessment of how media and culture interact and extend and mix:

I want to convince my students that different media cultures don’t replace each other in any sort of straight line. Rather, a culture of orality joins up with, and mixes with a culture of printing, which itself mixes with (but is not vanquished by) digital culture, and so on.

As a teacher and essayist, Anderson is straddling the eras himself, using books as references but introducing blogs and online articles to challenge them. His Atlantic article is highly enriched by links that could not have existed in print. His approach is completely modern, normal in today’s communication environment, and displays exactly the kind of mixing he talks about.

Two other recent articles discuss why the book as a print artifact is so troubled, poised on a precipice. Mike Shatzkin observes and/or argues in a recent post that while the print book was essentially perfected hundreds of years ago, e-books are improving regularly. Reactionaries who claim they will never give up the printed book are neglecting this important aspect. As Shatzkin writes:

. . . the insistence by some people that they will “never” give up the printed book — which leads to rather ludicrous glorification of the smell of the paper, ink, and glue and the nonsensical objections that the screen would be unsuitable for the beach (depends on the screen) or the bathtub (I can’t even imagine what the presumed advantage of the printed book is there) — must ignore the fundamental dynamic. Print books aren’t getting better. Ebooks are.

I recently observed this exact dynamic with visitors at our house. In a discussion of an obscure recipe, the “book lovers” scurried off to find something in the cookbooks. Their question as they left — “What’s your best book for recipes?” — elicited my answer of “My iPhone.” They scoffed, one saying, “We like books too much.” Sure enough, I had the answer before any of the book users. The tools available to the book users were the same ones as always — an index, page numbers, a table of contents, some section tabs (these were cookbooks). But the iPhone, like other e-readers, is facile now, and only getting better. The books I was competing against were the same as they were in the 1970s or 1990s.

A recent article in the New York Times observes that users of e-readers may also have a social advantage — the technology of the e-reader is intriguing, so people with iPads and Kindles get attention from strangers who want to touch, hold, gaze upon these new devices. Some users believe these devices are erasing the social stigma about reading alone in public. It’s an arguable point, as the article notes, but there definitely is something unique about a device (either the Kindle or the iPad) that can hold many types of content. With a book, it’s clear you’re reading one thing. With an e-reader, you have many more options at your fingertips, and that’s more socially interesting.

But while there may be some social benefit to e-books, one nagging concern about e-readers and the digital information experience in general was summed up nicely by author Jeanette Winterson:

If you start taking books off shelves then you are only going to find what you are looking for, which does not help those who do not know what they are looking for.

Browsing is still a problem with e-readers and online reading in general. Feeds, email alerts, and other techniques can help, but there’s nothing like wandering a bookstore, where you can experience the slow seduction, seeping inspiration, or random connection of real books. So while Shatzkin may be right that e-books and e-readers are improving, the macro book environment could suffer severely during the shift. Books could become files that are just plain hard to find. The marketing challenge of e-books aren’t well-addressed by the current devices.

The print era may be winding down, but many of the cultural transformations it wrought will be with us forever, shaping our journey. We are building from books, not destroying them. And as e-readers evolve, it’s interesting to ponder what the wireless information era will bring us. In a few decades or centuries, what will the syllabus of a class entitled “Connected Culture” look like?

Hat tip to Jill O’Neill for the syllabus link.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


11 Thoughts on "Teaching the End of Print — Using Books Poised on the Edge of Oblivion"

Great post, Kent.

>>Browsing is still a problem with e-readers and online reading in general.

This is a huge problem and why I still buy a fair number of books from the local indy bookstore. I had high hopes for social reading sites like Goodreads but there doesn’t seem to be a critical mass of people using them yet or maybe the concept doesn’t work. A great follow-up post might be looking at what can/should/might arise to fill the need if physical bookstores do fade away.

Thanks, Aaron. I agree this is a huge problem, but I don’t know how much of it is a perceptual problem. That is, we find those magical books through serendipity, and the bookstore’s system gets the credit (along with the cover designer and whatever we had for lunch). I really can’t tell if Amazon’s recommendation engine combined with Twitter and blogging and email in aggregate are better or worse, more or less effective. I luck out finding a great book maybe once every 3 months via bookstores. I have about the same hit-rate sampling through my Kindle (I think I might have found one last night). Some books surprise despite the cover, some disappoint despite the praise elsewhere. It’s really hard to separate.

I’ll see if I come across anything that helps me see this more clearly, and will write about it if/when I find such a thing. As you note, the issue of “critical mass” may play a factor. It might also be worth contemplating why efforts like Goodreads aren’t quite taking off.

Thanks again for the comment.

I worry that Shatzkin’s argument is a bit unfair–yes, eBooks are improving rapidly, but they’re still behind paper books in so many areas–durability, sharing, re-sale, resolution, overall cost (cost of a device plus an ebook versus just buying a book), etc. Isn’t it more fair to say that eBooks are rapidly catching up, instead of implying that they’re on an equal footing and one is stagnant?

The NY Times article, about the sexiness of eBook readers for picking up strangers also seems very shortsighted. When I had the first gen titanium Mac PowerBook, people used to come up to me all the time to check it out. A few years later, they’re commonplace, no one gives them a second glance. Ditto the iPhone–when was the last time a stranger asked you to play with yours? The novelty wears off pretty quickly, and soon we’ll all be back to our solitary antisocial ways.

Both you and Aaron in the comment above are right on the money as far as browsing goes. I’ve yet to find an online retailer that suggests anything remotely interesting to me (or if it is interesting, I usually already own it). Amazon fails miserably as they can’t seem to separate out the gifts I buy for others from the things I buy for myself. eMusic just seems way off, as does Netflix. Yet I can walk into my local bookstore and usually find 2 or 3 things to buy.

Some of this is likely from having strange, contrarian tastes, but the whole recommendation situation reminds me of the current state of the semantic web–lots of promises made but no “there” there yet.

I am NOT saying this worth the time except maybe as an experiment (though I do admit to occasionally frittering away a spare 10 minutes with it) but you can tell’s recommendation engine about gifts.

Go to your account settings and under “personalization” is something called “improve your recommendations.” That page lets you go over all the stuff you’ve bought on Amazon and not just rate it with 1 to 5 stars but also check off “This was a gift” or “Don’t use this for recommendations.”

Now since Amazon usually already knows that a particular purchase was a gift from the checkout process, a much better system would be to default to having the gift box for recommendations checked off by default. But it’s not. Anyway, if you want to see all the crazy things you’ve purchased over the years, they’re all here 😉

I guess it’s good that they have that option, but I really can’t be bothered. I think any system where the customer has to put in work is doomed. That’s why efforts like this one probably won’t catch on. I’m not going to spend hours answering questions so some company can make a fortune selling my profile to retailers. If you want my business, you can work for it. Don’t expect me to put forth a huge effort just to earn the privilege of buying more from your store.

You’re right in that this is something Amazon needs to automate. How about simply using the shipping address? Have the customer indicate their home/work address. Anything that goes there is a better fit for a recommendation engine than something shipped to a different name in a different city. Sometimes I do get gifts for others sent to my home so I can present them in person, which would foul this up, but at least it would be a little better. How hard is it to eliminate items purchased through someone else’s wedding registry?

It is fascinating to go back through one’s entire Amazon history though. I was actually surprised at how little I’ve ordered from them over the years–really I thought I was more dependent on them than I am, which is probably a good thing.

I would suggest that ebooks are *not* actually improving or that they are being improved on only an incremental level. I still encounter far too many where the navigation is screwed up because some publisher hasn’t put in the appropriate navigational hyper-links or because minimal thought has been given to how one might enhance or amplify a particular work. We’re in a digital age but no attempt is being given to bringing back the enhancements that publishers dropped because of the expense of including them in the print volume. Why not enhance my digital experience with the inclusion of a frontispiece or other form of illustration? Maybe resolution isn’t perfect, but there’s no reason to pretend one can’t do it at all. Why not integrate study aids such as character listings and similar supports rather than yielding that ground to the like of Spark Notes? Why not make those back of the book indexes more detailed? I’ve been a Kindle owner for two years now and I’m not at all impressed with the calibre of the digital materials I’m being offered.

Oh, and Kent is most welcome to the shared link!

It brings to mind a person I know who truly “embodied” his wedding ring — he and his spouse tattooed them around their fingers, then wore gold rings on top. This way, even when the ring was off, the wedding band was still embodied, literally.

This worked OK until the divorce.

Tattoos are usually cursed that way, bringing about the doom of any relationship. Still, it could be worse, you could end up as a Wino Forever.

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