I’ve been troubled for a couple of days by Jeff Jarvis’s latest column in MediaGuardian, which was headlined “Books will disappear. Print is where words go to die“, which essentially riffs on the points Kevin Kelly has been making in the New York Times. (Jarvis makes the same point on his blog post, which has more links.)
Sorry, but even though he gives himself wiggle room by saying
I’m not proposing that every book would be enhanced by adding functionality; fiction, especially, is best delivered one-way and on portable paper
I just can’t buy the idea of books being sucked up into the motherlode of the Net, in the manner of a drunken redneck being uplifted by passing aliens seeking some sort of impregnation.
I realise that it’s a bit weird for the editor of the Guardian’s Technology section – which surely is the forward-looking one that’s all ya-hoo about this stuff – to be suggesting some braking is due on stuff that appears in the Media section, which is surely that old fusty print stuff. But I’m just calling it as I see it. Ich kann nicht anders.
First, you can’t read anywhere near as efficiently online as off. We read at least 50% faster off paper, because of the limitations of displays, and that’s not going to change until we get to 200dpi. (I wrote about this for The Independent last year.. here.)
Next, reading online promotes a sort of attention deficit disorder. Do you really hunker down to that 4,000 word piece online? Nope, you either get a PDF of it (you hope) and print that out, or you read a few hundred words, then check your email, then read some more and hey- just got an IM! – and then, oh, you know… Which is nothing like getting lost in a good book, or even well-argued scientific treatise. (For more on this, see Nick Carr’s latest post, on the difference between “active” and “passive”. Being online tends to make you “active” – which isn’t necessarily a good thing.)
Plus, paper is convenient. And it lasts. Books survive. Shakespeare folios survive. The Dead Sea Scrolls survive.
In the same way, most of the people who’ve lived have disappeared, been buried, vanished forever. Recall the remains of the statue of Ozymandias – two feet in the desert, and the legend “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” It’s hard not to feel that putting “books” online isn’t going down the Ozymandias route.
By contrast, the ancient Egyptians embalmed their kings. Nothing changed. The mummies lasted. (OK, the desert air might have helped too.) Tutankhamen might have been dead, but his message survived. A book embalms (which my dictionary gives, as one meaning, “preserves in an unaltered state”) the words inside. They don’t need to be linked, because the reader does the linking, in all the synapses and neurons in their brain, when they read it.
Does this mean I’m against putting information online? No, it doesn’t. Does it mean I’m against putting news or features or other work like that online? No, it doesn’t. It means that I think that something special does happen when you open the pages of a physical book and start reading. Trying to pretend that the Net can supplant that experience is like thinking that TV will replace radio. Millions, billions of people still listen to radio. Media don’t die. And books, since they embalm their contents, have the best chance of longevity of them all right now.