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

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…