What is a book?

Day 109 of Self Quarantine                       Covid 19 Deaths in U.S.:  128,000

I love books.

From the minute I learned how to read, I surrounded myself with books of all kinds.

From time to time, I encounter a colleague or a young graduate student who extols the virtues of the good old fashioned paper books.  They disparage how pitiful electronic versions of books are on a Kindle or an iPad.  They revere their beloved printed page.

Spending a lot of time in the design community with great designers of books, I appreciate their point of view that the designed form of the book is as important as the content.  Kim Erwin shared how important it was for her to both author and design the form of her book Communicating the New: Methods to Shape and Accelerate Innovation.  She was so chagrined to watch her form design be mangled in the automatic translation to a kindle device which she couldn’t control.

For me, the benefits of digital books far outweigh the nostalgia for a printed book.

Recently, I came across research and a presentation from a graduate student of design sharing her reverence for the paper book.  It must be the pandemic because the research irked me into writing an unsolicited counterpoint to her assertions.  From her website describing her thesis research:

“There are two threads I’m interested in exploring throughout the course of this thesis: book as meaningful object + book as a tool to focus (bear with me on the second one—I’m still looking for the words).

“To help explain the first, I’d like to tell you about an interview I did with Heidi, a fellow book lover. It was an experiment, purposely left open ended and unstructured to see where and how the conversation would wander. A self-proclaimed book hoarder, Heidi walked me through the books in her “book lair” (an office-like area in the basement). What resulted was a personal narrative, an autobiography told through books. There are the classics that she read in high school English class, placed prominently so that people can see them. Lower down on the shelf are the science fiction novels, the cherished books from her grandmother’s collection, and a smattering of other books from miscellaneous experiences, interests and people. A narrow shelf next to the desk holds design books—lots of them—and a stack of worn literature and poetry books from college. There is one book in particular littered with orange post-its, and it easily falls open to a page full of underlines and notes. It’s one of the books you save. If you like books, too, you know which books in your shelf look and feel like this.

“When we finished combing through all the shelves, Heidi mentioned that she’d never really looked at all of her books at the same time in that way before. It was illuminating. Talking to Heidi about her books and the books most important to her made me think about my own books. What story do my books tell about me? And what makes me save the books I save? In other words, what makes my books meaningful?

“I’d like to contrast this to a classmate who prefers digital books. In an age where any and all information is available at our fingertips, why do we even need physical books? Despite threats of their demise in the face of the internet and the e-readers, physical books feel more relevant today than ever. Although some formats mimic the physical book better than others (i.e. the Kindle Paperwhite), it’s more challenging for us to focus on a screen versus a printed page. I have most notifications turned off on my devices, but still find that I am more distracted when reading on a screen. Lately, my overall attention is harder to control, and my brain feels scattered. When I spend more time reading, though, I’m calmer, I can focus better, I spend less time checking my phone, and I am more grounded in the present. Time tends to slow down a little bit without the constant pull and ping of the phone.

I was bothered enough by the line “physical books feel more relevant today … it is more challenging for us to focus on a screen versus a printed page” that I sent the following email:

This is unsolicited and coming from optimal ignorance having not heard your current presentation.  I am only able to react to what is publicly available on your website.  At one point, I held your point of view about physical books.  I have >5,000 hard copy books in my house that range from paper backs to my professional tomes.  They tell many stories of the journey of my professional life.

These are some of the books scattered throughout our house.  Please excuse the mess.  Paper books are everywhere.

Skip’s Library of Books

However, I rarely pull any of these books out to look at or read.  The book cases are now spaces to display my experiments in acrylic painting.

I have >2,500 books in Kindle format on my iPad.  I keep my iPad with me at all times.  With my iPad I have several advantages:

      • All of my relevant professional books are ALWAYS with me.
        • When travelling, I no longer have to pack 10 books for a 5 day trip breaking my back by carrying that kind of load to satisfy my reading habits while on an airplane or in a hotel room.
      • All of my highlights and notes made in the “margins” are ALWAYS with me and searchable thanks to Amazon Highlights.
        • I no longer have to transfer my margin notes or underlines to an Evernote or Word document.
        • I no longer have to remember which book I made a margin note in.
      • All of my kindle books are now available as searchable PDFs
        • With a little help from DRM anti-encryption software
        • Through tools like X1 I have my terabytes of personal documents searchable as well as my books (that took 20 years from the vision I had for this capability – see Attenex Patterns History).

“At 5 PM yesterday, I saw my 30 year dream come alive.  I was able to display my research papers.  I navigated around the clusters and the concepts.  And then when I selected on a document, whether it was MS Word or a PDF, up it would pop in its own document viewer.  Unbelievable.  The only thing missing is the ability to index the books that I have in my home library.

“But synchronicity strikes again.  Just this week, Amazon.com started selling electronic versions of the popular management texts that are a core part of my library.  They come in either Microsoft reader or Adobe eBook format.  I quickly bought ebooks in each of the formats to see if we could index them.  Of course they are protected from that.  So close, so far.  But then it occurs to me, books are intellectual property.  I bet that someone in the Intellectual Property Practice at K&L Gates was involved in negotiating the licenses for some of the book properties.  Sure enough several folks in the group were.  So hopefully the last step in the journey of the dream is close at hand, the ability to not only pour my own writings and email, research reports, and published papers into the Attenex Patterns document database, but we can also get full length books indexed.

“Now I will be able to SEE the idea and concept relationships between all these wonderful publications that I can only fuzzily keep in my human memory today.  I can’t wait to glean new insights as I index more documents and as I use the re-cluster on anchor documents to see relationships I’ve never been able to see before.  I look forward to being able to publish meta-data about a corpus of documents and open up a whole new field of Document Mining.

“As a researcher, teacher, and business person, yesterday was the happiest day of my professional life.  My heartfelt thanks to all of you who’ve helped bring these concepts to life.”

The more I use my digital books on the Kindle, I realize additional benefits:

      • I now find it painful to find a comfortable position to sit in order to read a physical book.  I find it difficult to hold a large format book or to read the fine print of a paper back book.
        • With the iPad Kindle software I can change the font size as my eyes tire during the course of a long reading session.
        • The iPad is always the same weight and size – this sounds silly but it is easy to adjust to rather than having to adjust to the differing sizes and weights of each book
      • I hated making marks in a book to underline or highlight or make margin notes.  I felt I was ruining the book.  Then, I encountered a book signing event with Tom Peters who refused to sign any book that hadn’t been marked up.  He wanted to only sign books from folks he could easily tell appreciated what he had to say.  But I still hate to mark up my books.
        • I love highlighting a lot in a kindle book.
        • I use the different color highlights to “categorize” a highlight.
        • I can use the share option to immediately send to friends and colleagues important quotes from books I am reading.  I have to break state if I do that with a paper book.

        • While I have stacks of books now, they are books that don’t have Kindle variants yet (or likely ever).  They sit in a pile and sit some more and I don’t get to them.  Some of these are favorites from 30 years ago.  But they are not with me like my iPad.
        • I misplace and misfile my paper books all the time.  I never have to worry about that with my iPad Kindle.
        • Digital books are much better for the environment not requiring resources to produce the paper (a waste of precious water), the environmentally corrosive inks required for print, the electricity to run the presses, and the hydrocarbons required to deliver the book to you.  Nostalgia for the old is nice, but not environmentally friendly.

Many moons ago I had the pleasure of spending a weekend at the High Ground Conference put on by Mike and Katherine McCoy in Buena Vista, CO.  Present were a wide range of famous graphic designers, museum curators, book designers, font designers, and Bruce Sterling (science fiction author and design aficionado).  I listened as these folks pontificated on knowledge delivery in all of their areas of expertise.  I finally interjected that we had a very different understanding of knowledge.  I shared that museums are interesting and books are interesting, but it is not until they become digital that there is a chance for knowledge to develop.  Knowledge in this sense being the ability to link and cross reference both in authored and in automatic form.  An angry, yet spirited discussion ensued.  Bruce in his wonderful way figured out how to get us on a better discussion path by talking about the both/and of very different forms of knowledge.

Thanks for listening.  I wanted to provide a counterpoint to the bygone era of print and recommend the benefits I find in the digital version of books.

I only purchase books that are in digital format.  If the author is not bright enough to produce the book in digital form, they will not get my money.

In some cases, I do have to buy the paper book and the kindle book to make sure that I can experience the designed FORM.  However, I still need the always with me digital format AND the search-ability of the content for the author’s work to be useful to me in any context I might find myself.

I love digital books.

The “What is a book?” series of posts:


This entry was posted in Content with Context, Curation, Design, ebook, Human Centered Design. Bookmark the permalink.

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