Words in Boxes

Nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives.

Monday, August 27, 2007

If it looks like a book, does it quack like a book?

I'll never get over how I can follow a single link from a site I read every day, follow another link, and then another, and all of the sudden look up to find myself standing in the middle of a conversation of people I've never heard of talking about a topic I’m familiar with. The internet is full of these little separate neighborhoods, but that's easy to forget when I don't often stray from the gated community of my feed reader.

The latest neighborhood I've stumbled upon is the librarian (or information science) bloggers. Now I'm not a librarian – I'm a software developer at a book publisher – but they deal with many of the same professional issues surrounding the digitization of text that I do. For instance, is a book a book if it's not printed on paper?

First, a bit of background. The discussion (I think) was touched off by David Duguid’s great article Inheritance and loss – A brief survey of Google Books, in which he concludes (emphasis mine):

Google Books takes books as a storehouse of wisdom to be opened up with new tools. They fail to see what librarians know: books can be obtuse, obdurate, even obnoxious things. As a group, they don’t submit equally to a standard shelf, a standard scanner, or a standard ontology. Nor are their constraints overcome by scraping the text and developing search algorithms. Such strategies can undoubtedly be helpful, but in trying to do away with fairly simple constraints (like volumes), these strategies underestimate how a book’s rigidities are often simultaneously resources deeply implicated in the ways in which authors and publishers sought to create the content, meaning, and significance that Google now seeks to liberate. Even with some of the best search and scanning technology in the world behind you, it is unwise to ignore the bookish character of books. More generally, transferring any complex communicative artifacts between generations of technology is always likely to be more problematic than automatic.

To get the remaining context for my thoughts, hop over to Pegasus Librarian and See Also.... Back? Good. For the link-shy, an executive summary:

I can pour my ginger ale from an aluminum can container into a glass tumbler container, and it is still ginger ale. “Pour” Tristram Shandy from a paper book container to a Google scan container, and you no longer have Shandy, you have something else. [link]

I think you’re right that the point is that it’s not simple. The point is not so much the words in a row. The point is not so much the placement of pictures, type face, or white space (which is also important). The point is that “containers” are not entirely benign. If they were entirely benign, people wouldn’t pour ginger ale from the can to the glass. There’s something about a glass that’s more comfortable to drink from. The edge feels different on the lips, the spray tickles your nose… the experience isn’t the same. And yet, the ginger ale is still ginger ale. [link]

What Duguid, Lawson, and Jastram are suggesting is that the content of a book is shaped, even enhanced, by the physical form of the book. This is definitely true, and I think the reason why the printed book works so well as a container is that it’s transparent. We are so used to the feel and operation of a book that we don’t notice that it is there. We are used to the conventions of the table of contents, page numbers in the margins, and an index at the end, and we know without thinking to turn the pages right to left and to mark our spot before walking away. These conventions work well.

In my college fiction class, our professor told us to avoid writing anything - ungrammatical sentences, strange phrasing – that would interrupt the reader’s “fictional dream” and remind him that he’s not actually inhabiting the world of the characters but instead looking at a stack of wood pulp sheets. The best prose is as transparent as it is beautiful; if it is difficult or complex it is because the ideas are too. Likewise, anything that disrupts the physical act of reading – a clunky e-book interface, glare on the screen, the difficulty of non-linear reading – disrupts the processing of language.

I'm not romanticizing the smell and texture of the printed page – it's just that on a practical level, printed books simply work better than anything else we have at the moment. I have no problem with reading text on a screen, and I probably read more that way than I do from print. But the content of what I read is different. Blogs and news articles aren't “books,” and by that I mean they aren't novels, long-form reporting, or textbooks. The blog, updated constantly and full of links, is a form that can only exist online, much like Tristam Shandy can only truly exist in print. The conventions of a printed book have been with us for so long that they dictate how books are written and what they say.

There are good reasons why people are trying to put more and more content on line. Who wouldn't want to be able search the full text of a book, or click on hyperlinks instead of using page-numbered cross references? As useful as a printed index is, it takes time mark your spot, flip to the back, scan the entries, and flip to the new page – plenty of time for your train of thought to be derailed.

Someday, technology will advance enough so we can have the best of both worlds. But right now the trade-offs are too great, the window into the language too dirty. The interfaces stink. E-books offer little innovation over their printed cousins. Viewing PDFs on a screen is an exercise in frustration; they offer almost nothing over printed pages, and worse, they cling to the paradigm of set pagination even when there is absolutely no use for it on a screen.

Jastram does a good job of summing up some of the difficulties:

... Complex texts are not generally read in as linear fashion as they are written. The words march forward, the same as ever, but my eyes jump back to the top of the facing page, the previous paragraph, the next sentence, almost without breaking the flow of my reading. Complex texts require this type of reading-while-reading as you make sense of them.

Some day, technology might be able to simulate the act of putting a finger on a page in order to mark a point you’re trying to interpret by reading forward. Some day readers might allow the kind of non-linear reading that’s necessary for sense-making. [link]

I think that the best bet for what books will look like in 10 years is Manolis Kelaidis's blueBook project, which combines the strengths of printed books with those of electronic books:

The blueBook created at the RCA and pictured here is a traditional book over-printed with conductive ink. This conductive ink creates hyperlinks on the page which, when touched by the reader, activates a processor concealed in the cover of the book. This processor then connects via bluetooth to a nearby computer, triggering different actions.

Information here and here, an interview here, and pictures here.

If instead of interacting with a computer to display additional information it displayed it directly in the book via electronic ink, then we'd really be somewhere. Maybe someday.

I'm James Sulak, a software developer in Houston, Texas.

You can also find me on Twitter, or if you're curious, on my old-fashioned home page. If you want to contact me directly, you can e-mail comments@wordsinboxes.com.