No, Jeff – print is where books go to be embalmed. There’s a difference

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.


  1. Charles, on the online attention deficit thing – do you find that your attitude to reading is much more focused online? I’m not sure if it’s because I’m online all day for work, but I’ve found that my reading habits are completely different online than offline.

    For example, this morning I’ve done my usual RSS review, checked 385 headlines – work and non-work – and speed-read the lot of them. From that, I’ve clicked on maybe 20 headlines to speed-read the opening pars, and of those I’ve maybe read 3 full pieces. And even those were skimmed rather than absorbed. And since I started typing this, the feed reader’s refreshed and there’s another 216 headlines to batter through.

    Offline, though… also this morning, I’ve sat down with a coffee, a pack of smokes, today’s Guardian and this week’s private eye. And with a few exceptions – sport, a few international things I’m not interested in – I’ve read them cover to cover. If I tried that with just one RSS feed, I’d be here all day.

    As a tech hack, I love the idea of a Minority Report-style “Daily Me”, an electronic newspaper that’s customised to my exact needs – but as a magazine junkie, I do wonder if that would just end up narrowing my horizons: one of the joys of dead tree media is that it surprises you and takes you down interesting avenues. The Daily Me wouldn’t do that.

    Er, does any of that make sense? I probably need more coffee…

  2. Hi Charles

    Really good post. I must admit I have been sucked in to Jeff’s thesis on newspapers/books being where print goes to die. More so with the media…. but you know what, dammit? You are even more right than he is! I liked the redneck analogy too.

  3. Charles, I thought that you would be interested in this article on Mark Glaser’s media shift blog that takes a much more pragmatic stance

  4. Charles

    Thursday 8 June 2006 at 12:50 pm

    “Am I more focussed reading online than off”? Not at all – there are too many distractions and other things happening online. That said, I tend to read online more than off, because that’s what my job is focussed around.

    Simon, I love “You are even more right than he is!” Nice to know it’s not binary.

  5. I agree with Gary Marshall that the Daily Me is far too limiting. I find that the stuff I read when I am browsing through my RSS feeds is rarely things that I would have selected for a personalised newsfeed so would miss a lot with a personalised feed. You can;t do serendipity and personalisation – it just won’t work. And I prefer serendipity. I also prefer paper.

  6. I totally agree that reading a long article (or a book) is much easier in print than on screen, but screens are going to get good enough in the next few years. Having said that, I put that point to Dr Potter when Psion launched the Revo a decade ago, and he blithely said that screens with 100% contrast would be along “in two years”, which ain’t happened. I still believe that readers with the legibility of paper and the power of digital will appear soon and text books and newspapers will finally begin to fade away.
    On the other hand, reading for pleasure may well stay with books. Paper feels nice, it has a nice reassuring crackle and even smells nice. You don’t get that with an ebook.

  7. One word : batteries. Until they solve that one paper will always win.

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