Skip to main content

Print is Dead – Jeff Gomez ***

It doesn’t take genius to spot the irony of reading a solid, ‘dead tree’ (as the author would put it) version of a book saying that the printed book is on its last legs. (It is available in ebook form, but as will become clear, the author isn’t too impressed with those either.)
Jeff Gomez is an industry insider, though one with a bias – he’s responsible for internet marketing for Holtzbrinck, the publisher that includes Henry Holt, Picador, St. Martin’s Press, Farrar Strauss & Giroux and more. He makes a telling argument that there is a generation coming through that has less patience with books, less interest in books themselves as a physical medium.
Where he’s particularly good is at demolishing many of the typical responses of those who defend the printed book. Book lovers often go into paens about the physical joy of using a book: the smell, the feel of the binding and so forth. The fact is, for most people books are semi-disposable paperbacks with no real intrinsic value. He also shoots down the ‘can you read in a bath argument’ so popular with many. Printed books, he points out, don’t like getting wet either. Have you every tried reading in a shower? (A better argument is whether ebooks are any good to read in bed. Without a good book-like reader (is the Kindle the answer?), ereading is hopeless.)
Equally, those who want to shoot down Gomez’s idea point out that ebooks have not done well commercially. It’s true. But we haven’t had the ebook equivalent of the iPod yet and (and this is Gomez’s best point), it’s not either/or. There’s more to reading that the printed book and an Adobe Reader ebook. There are many ways to read electronically. We do it all them time, whether it’s searching in Google or reading a Word document. The current ebooks aren’t a great way to read a novel, but there is plenty of electronic reading going on, and gradually, with the right approaches, it will increasingly marginalize print.
However, there are some real problems with this book. The first is the classic trap of non-fiction. It’s an interesting idea, but there isn’t enough to support a whole book. It’s really a magazine article (or a blog entry!) – and this means that Gomez is forced to repeat the same argument over and over again in subtly different ways to fill what is a pretty slim book. Then there are the parallels Gomez draws in the way he expects print to go. He says, for instance, that we’ve already seen the decline of newspapers thanks to the internet. This really isn’t true. A generation before the ‘download generation’ Gomez keeps referring to, newspapers were already in decline because of TV news. I’ve never subscribed to a newspaper, because I can get all the news I need, fresher, from the TV. I read newspapers occasionally for entertainment and in-depth insight – and that role change had already come well before the internet, it’s just that there were plenty of older newspaper subscribers propping them up.
Similarly, he beats to death the parallel between reading and what the iPod and digital downloads have done to music. But these are very different products. More often than not, iPod music is sophisticated Musak. It’s music that’s in the background while you do something else. Reading is a very different exercise. I’m not saying that it has to be from a printed page – couldn’t care less – but it isn’t the same as listening to music.
Finally, he makes the frequent mistake of the enthusiast of assuming that everyone else is too. He says that what the ‘download generation’ want to do is to mash up their own products, to create and interact, not just to consume. Yet this is a picture of a small percentage of the market. It’s telling that he uses examples of experimental writing and music where the reader or listener can change the content. This isn’t mainstream. It’s for the geeks. And books where you fiddle around and jump from place to place and rearrange the story are for literary geeks. Most readers want to pick up something and read it, whether it’s Heat Magazine or a great novel – they don’t want to reshape and mould it. They want some rest and recreation. So a flawed message in a compromised vehicle. But still interesting for the questions it raises.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…