One of the most popular books for our CCN on-site presentations last year was The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr (New York: Norton, 2010). In that book, he discusses how the Internet tinkers with the brain, reamps its neural circuitry, and reprograms the memory. While the mind does not go, it certainly changes, and deep reading and concentration become struggles.
I thought that Carr’s recent essay in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Books That Are Never Done Being Written” (December 31, 2011 – January 1, 2012, p. C3) took these thoughts further. In the essay that I reproduced in its entirety below, he argues that digital text ushers in an era where constant revision and updating is not only possible, but becoming normal, for better and for worse.
Have you ever thought about what can happen with this kind of access? Carr says, “School boards will be able to edit textbooks, and dictatorial governments will be able to meddle, too.” The never-ending story will become a reality.
Editable content strains credibility of sources. We already pooh-pooh Wikipedia for that reason. Even though there are controls within its system, they are not great, and people receive laughter when they cite it as a reference in professional and academic circles. I don’t think it’s entirely bad, but I caution people to use it only to get background information about a topic, and to then use its external source links for additional substantiation and elaboration.
For me, the simple addition of an “afterword” to a subsequent printing suffices. In fact, that is what you will find when you purchase Carr’s book. You will find an additional chapter where he provides reactions and updates to his premises from an earlier printing. The same is true of the famous Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear by Frank Luntz (New York: Hyperion, 2007). Between printings, he added a chapter with seven new “words that work.”
The difference between this approach and the massive digital editing approach is that these are author-controlled, and they are also refereed. Today, anyone can put up an e-Book, and no one has to review or approve its content. And, if it is open to massive external editing, the author will have lost control. Whose words are we really reading? And, how do we know that they are factual and accurate?
This essay by Carr is worth reading and contemplating. Before we just jump into the all-digital era, stop reviewing content for accuracy, cast away professional refereeing, and halt publishing of paper-versions of books, maybe we should all take a deep breath and be sure this is what we want to do.
Technological advances are good, but they are amoral. It all depends in whose hands the advances land, and how they use them.
Read the essay below. Then, tell me what you think! Let’s talk about it really soon!
BOOKS THAT ARE NEVER DONE BEING WRITTEN
By Nicholas Carr
Wall Street Journal, December 31, 2011 – January 1, 2012, p. C3
I recently got a glimpse into the future of books. A few months ago, I dug out a handful of old essays I’d written about innovation, combined them into a single document, and uploaded the file to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service. Two days later, my little e-book was on sale at Amazon’s site. The whole process couldn’t have been simpler.
Then I got the urge to tweak a couple of sentences in one of the essays. I made the edits on my computer and sent the revised file back to Amazon. The company quickly swapped out the old version for the new one. I felt a little guilty about changing a book after it had been published, knowing that different readers would see different versions of what appeared to be the same edition. But I also knew that the readers would be oblivious to the alterations.
An e-book, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one. The words in the latter stay put. In the former, the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.
When Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type a half-millennium ago, he also gave us immovable text. Before Gutenberg, books were handwritten by scribes, and no two copies were exactly the same. Scribes weren’t machines; they made mistakes. With the arrival of the letterpress, thousands of identical copies could enter the marketplace simultaneously. The publication of a book, once a nebulous process, became an event.
A new set of literary workers coalesced in publishing houses, collaborating with writers to perfect texts before they went on press. The verb “to finalize” became common in literary circles, expressing the permanence of printed words. Different editions still had textual variations, introduced either intentionally as revisions or inadvertently through sloppy editing or typesetting, but books still came to be viewed, by writer and reader alike, as immutable objects. They were written for posterity.
Beyond giving writers a spur to eloquence, what the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein calls “typographical fixity” served as a cultural preservative. It helped to protect original documents from corruption, providing a more solid foundation for the writing of history. It established a reliable record of knowledge, aiding the spread of science. It accelerated the standardization of everything from language to law. The preservative qualities of printed books, Ms. Eisenstein argues, may be the most important legacy of Gutenberg’s invention.
Once digitized, a page of words loses its fixity. It can change every time it’s refreshed on a screen. A book page turns into something like a Web page, able to be revised endlessly after its initial uploading. There’s no technological constraint on perpetual editing, and the cost of altering digital text is basically zero. As electronic books push paper ones aside, movable type seems fated to be replaced by movable text.
That’s an attractive development in many ways. It makes it easy for writers to correct errors and update facts. Guidebooks will no longer send travelers to restaurants that have closed or to once charming inns that have turned into fleabags. The instructions in manuals will always be accurate. Reference books need never go out of date.
Even literary authors will be tempted to keep their works fresh. Historians and biographers will be able to revise their narratives to account for recent events or newly discovered documents. Polemicists will be able to bolster their arguments with new evidence. Novelists will be able to scrub away the little anachronisms that can make even a recently published story feel dated.
But as is often the case with digitization, the boon carries a bane. The ability to alter the contents of a book will be easy to abuse. School boards may come to exert even greater influence over what students read. They’ll be able to edit textbooks that don’t fit with local biases. Authoritarian governments will be able to tweak books to suit their political interests. And the edits can ripple backward. Because e-readers connect to the Internet, the works they contain can be revised remotely, just as software programs are updated today. Movable text makes a lousy preservative.
Such abuses can be prevented through laws and software protocols. What may be more insidious is the pressure to fiddle with books for commercial reasons. Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They’ll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book.
The promise of stronger sales and profits will make it hard to resist tinkering with a book in response to such signals, adding a few choice words here, trimming a chapter there, maybe giving a key character a quick makeover. What will be lost, or at least diminished, is the sense of a book as a finished and complete object, a self-contained work of art.
Not long before he died, John Updike spoke eloquently of a book’s “edges,” the boundaries that give shape and integrity to a literary work and that for centuries have found their outward expression in the indelibility of printed pages. It’s those edges that give a book its solidity, allowing it to stand up to the vagaries of fashion and the erosions of time. And it’s those edges that seem fated to blur as the words of books go from being stamped permanently on sheets of paper to being rendered temporarily on flickering screens.
News Flash: You can get a free copy of The Myth of the Garage by Chip Heath and Dan Heath from the Kindle Store at Amazon.
This is really interesting.
And I like it. And not just because it is free.
I can’t begin to tell you how much I like reading on the Kindle App on my iPad. The features – a search button, a click which takes you to the Table of Contents, the highlighting feature, the fact that you can view all of your highlights (and with a little work, can copy and paste them into a Word document) — are all just wonderful, and genuinely useful to a serious book reader. The Kindle app is a great tool.
And reading on the iPad, in a “book format,” is so much easier that clicking through to essay after essay on the web. For example, wouldn’t it be great to have all of Malcolm Gladwell’s essays (most of which are archived at his web site, Gladwell.com), in one ebook? Yes, it would.
Now the future has just arrived in the first such volume (that I know about — there could be others).
Chip and Dan Heath are terrific authors. The brothers Heath wrote Made to Stick, and Switch, both of which I have presented at the First Friday Book Synopsis. They also have written a number of essays for the magazine Fast Company. I have not read most of these.
But I’ve read a bunch of them now. Because they are compiled, all together, in a free ebook available through the Kindle store.
And, yes, some of these essays are terrific.
The Heath brothers, with terrific essays, all on one place, in an easy-to-read-and-highlight ebook. Is this heaven?
(By the way, this one was free, but there is a real market for these. I would gladly pay a Kindle price for all of the Gladwell essays, or the Gawande essays, or so many others, to have them in one volume).
Order it now for your Kindle, or your Kindle app. “Buy” it (for free) here.
Here’s a quick take on The Myth of the Garage, that I found here.
From Chip and Dan Heath, the bestselling authors of Switch and Made to Stick, comes The Myth of the Garage: And Other Minor Surprises, a collection of the authors’ best columns for Fast Company magazine – 16 pieces in all, plus a previously unpublished piece entitled “The Future Fails Again.”
In Myth, the Heath brothers tackle some of the most (and least) important issues in the modern business world:
- Why you should never buy another mutual fund (“The Horror of Mutual Funds”)
- Why your gut may be more ethical than your brain (“In Defense of Feelings”)
- How to communicate with numbers in a way that changes decisions (“The Gripping Statistic”)
- Why the “Next Big Thing” often isn’t (“The Future Fails Again”)
- Why you may someday pay $300 for a pair of socks (“The Inevitability of $300 Socks”)
- And 12 others . . .
Punchy, entertaining, and full of unexpected insights, the collection is the perfect companion for a short flight.
I have long been a basher of electronic book readers, such as the Kindle and Nook. I believe in traditional books, and in outlets that sell and distribute books in print. Books are symbolic, and when anyone stores them on a reader, this facet disappears. I have developed this argument in a previous blog post, and you can access it by clicking here.
To that end, I was pleased to read this today (August 25, 2011) from the Harvard Business Review Online Daily Stat:
E-readers are not about to kill print books in the college environment: Very few students with e-readers use them for all of their reading, and most students with e-readers use them for one-third of their reading or less, according to a survey of 1,705 students by Nancy M. Foasberg of Queens College in New York City. Only 15.7% of respondents who said they read e-books used dedicated e-readers; the rest used computers or cell phones. 74% of respondents didn’t read e-books at all.
However, the title of the piece is misleading. It is called: “E-Readers Gain Ground Slowly in College.” I think that is true only if we start from zero. I am unimpressed by a figure of 15.7% .
There are some professors at colleges and universities who use our 15MinuteBusinessBooks.com site as a resource for their classes. To be clear, every entry we have available on that site was from a traditional, in-print book. Every book that we present at the First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas comes from a traditional, in-print book that we read and give away in a drawing. And, we will continue to do so. These are both services owned and operated by Creative Communication Network.
And, think about it. Do you really want an instructor in the classroom to say “please scroll to ____” instead of “please turn to page _____?”
What do you think about this?
Let’s talk about it really soon!
I have never been on board with electronic books. I am not excited about any of the devices such as Kindle, Nook, or iPads. I like a book. I like to hold it, carry it, display it, and engage in conversations about it when others see what I am reading.
I thought it was interesting in the Wall Street Journal on May 9, 2011, when Penguin Books CEO John Makinson claimed there is still a future for physical books. The article is entitled “Penguin CEO Adjusts to E-Books but Sees Room for the Old” (p. B9). The link to the full article appears below, authored by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg.
Notice that he says that physical books will always be published. “As we add value to the physical product, particularly the trade paperback and hardcover, the consumer will pay a little more for the better experience. I looked the other day into the sales of public-domain classics in 2009, when all those books were available for free. What I found was that our sales had risen by 30% that year. The reason is that we were starting to sell hardcover editions—more expensive editions—that people were prepared to pay for. There will always be a market for physical books, just as I think there will always be bookstores.”
And, even with the closing of Borders’ bookstores, he finds a strong future for such retail outlets. “There is a future in book retailing. A lot of the issue is not just that there are too many bookstores, but that they are too big. How do you diversify the offerings to consumers in order to make productive use of space without losing the experience of being in a bookstore?”
Finally, as I have stressed in other posts on this blog, there is a strong emotional link that book owners experience that goes beyond mere content. Makinson notes that “When you look at the structural competitive advantages Amazon.com has over any physical bookstore, it is overwhelming. But people will willingly pay a higher price in an independent bookshop knowing they can buy [the same book] for less down the road. That’s because consumers feel an emotional engagement with the bookstore and feel that bookstores are providing a public service as well as a commercial service. I see no evidence that independent bookstores will become obsolete.”
I am excited and energized by the fact that a leading, credible authority in the business remains in the physical book arena. While he reads manuscripts in digital devices, he reads physical books as well.
What do you think? Let’s discuss this really soon!
I found Danny Heitman’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal about e-reading very interesting. His title was “What an E-Reader Can’t Download,” published on July 23-24 (p. A-11).
In the article, he talks about the memories that are anchored as he scans the spines of the books on his living room shelf. For instance, as he sees the spine of Fishing in the Tiber by Lance Morrow, he thinks of a visit he made to Cleveland in 1991, the dinners he had there, the bookstores he visited there, and so forth. “To see the book these many years later is to think of red wine and pasta, wind and winter, good friends and good writing.”
While he acknowledges that electronic books are associated with great convenience, he also notes that the “books on my shelf help me remember that reading isn’t merely an inhalation of data. My library, and the years and places it evokes, speak of something deeper: the interplay of literature and the landscape of a life, the vivid record of a slow and winding search for wisdom, truth, the spark of pleasure or insight.”
Of course, he is right. Books are symbolic. They stand for things. They evoke passion, interest, and curiousity. When you carry them around or when you have them on your shelf, people will ask “what is that about?” or “how did you like that?” That doesn’t happen with an e-reader.
Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and other e-readers take all this out of the equation.
And that is very sad to me.
What do you think? Let’s talk about it!
“It turns out, in the age of super-speed broadband we need dead trees to have living minds.”
I have written earlier about my new found love of my iPad. It has exceeded my greatest expectations. I am reading many, many “samples” of books on both iBooks and Kindle apps. This practice, so very easy on my iPad, has become invaluable! And, I have now read my first full novel this way – Carte Blanche, the new James Bond.
But, I still read most of my nonfiction, and especially business, books the old fashioned way – with a physical book open and pen in hand. I underline, I write myself notes – sometimes, lots of notes!
(Yes, you can “write” a note and highlight passages on these apps – but it is not quite the same. I don’t remember what the e-book page looks like after I have marked it up – a life-long practice of mine).
But why do I so love the experience of reading a book? This article captures my feelings, and says it better than I could. This is a pretty long series of excerpts – but I still encourage you to click though and read the entire article. It is a terrific read. Now, don’t get distracted and check your e-mail half way through reading it. (Andrew Sullivan posted a brief excerpt; it is on Huffington Post here, and on Hari’s own site here).
Excerpts from In the age of distraction, we will need books more than ever by Johann Hari:
The book — the physical paper book — is being circled by a shoal of sharks, with sales down 9 percent this year alone. It’s being chewed by the e-book. It’s being gored by the death of the bookshop and the library. And most importantly, the mental space it occupied is being eroded by the thousand Weapons of Mass Distraction that surround us all. It’s hard to admit, but we all sense it: it is becoming almost physically harder to read books. I think we should start there — because it shows why we need the physical book to survive, and hints at what we need to do to make sure it does.
In his gorgeous little book The Lost Art of Reading — Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, the critic David Ulin admits to a strange feeling. All his life, he had taken reading as for granted as eating — but then, a few years ago, he “became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read.” He would sit down to do it at night, as he always had, and read a few paragraphs, then find his mind was wandering, imploring him to check his email, or Twitter, or Facebook. “What I’m struggling with,” he writes, “is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there’s something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly a series of disconnected riffs, quick takes and fragments, that add up to the anxiety of the age.”
…To read, you need to slow down. You need mental silence except for the words. That’s getting harder to find.
And here’s the function that the book — the paper book that doesn’t beep or flash or link or let you watch a thousand videos all at once — does for you that nothing else will. It gives you the capacity for deep, linear concentration. As Ulin puts it: “Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction… It requires us to pace ourselves. It returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise.”
Most humans don’t just want mental snacks forever; they also want meals. The twenty hours it takes to read a book require a sustained concentration it’s hard to get anywhere else. Sure, you can do that with a DVD boxset too — but your relationship to TV will always ultimately be that of a passive spectator. With any book, you are the co-creator, imagining it as you go. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, literature is the only art form in which the audience plays the score.
The idea of keeping yourself on a digital diet will, I suspect, become mainstream soon. Just as I’ve learned not to stock my fridge with tempting carbs, I’ve learned to limit my exposure to the web — and to love it in the limited window I allow myself.
I suspect I will continue to read both ways. I did successfully read the James Bond novel with focused discipline, so it is possible. But I fully agree with Hari – you need undistracted focus, in the “mental silence of nothing but the words” on the page (or screen).
Reading is such a pleasure!
“It turns out, in the age of super-speed broadband we need dead trees to have living minds.”