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 …

Six Impossible Things - John Gribbin *****

On first handling John Gribbin's book, it's impossible not to think of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - both are very slim, elegant hardbacks with a numbered set of items within - yet Six Impossible Things is a far, far better book than its predecessor. Where Seven Brief Lessons uses purple prose and vagueness in what feels like a scientific taster menu, Gribbin gives us a feast of precision and clarity, with a phenomenal amount of information for such a compact space. It's a TARDIS of popular science books, and I loved it.

Like rather a lot of titles lately (notably Philip Ball's excellent Beyond Weird), what Gribbin is taking on is not the detail of quantum physics itself - although he does manage to get across its essence in two 'fits' (named after the sections of Hunting of the Snark - Gribbin includes Lewis Carroll's epic poem in his recommended reading, though it's such a shame that the superb version annotated by Martin Gardi…

Elizabeth Bear - Four Way Interview

Elizabeth Bear won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer in 2005 and has since published 15 novels and numerous short stories. She writes in both the SF and fantasy genres and has won critical acclaim in both. She has won the Hugo Award more than once. She lives in Massachusetts. Her latest title is Ancestral Night.

Why science fiction?

I've been a science fiction fan my entire life, and I feel like SF is the ideal framework for stories about humanity and how we can be better at it. Not just cautionary tales - though there's certainly also value in cautionary tales - but stories with some hope built in that we might, in fact, mature as a species and take some responsibility for things like reflexive bigotry and hate crimes (as I'm writing this, the heartbreaking news about the terrorist attack on Muslim worshipers in Christchurch is everywhere) and global climate destabilization. These are not intractable problems, but we need, as a species, the will to see that we …