May 30, 2017

Bleached Woodpulp + Ink + Glue = A Mature Information Retrieval System


An intelligent teenager of my acquaintance tells me he now buys old-fashioned physical books because, "you can keep them." Too, the memory of a printed page is always greater than retention from electronic scrolls, which he has noticed is approximately zero. And this, regardless of attention levels, which of course plunge in a medium riddled with “links,” which scatter the attention wonderfully. Of back-ups & throwbacks : Essays in Idleness

One of the recurring themes in the discussion of the "new media" (internet, blogs, databases, web pages, online encyclopedia's, Google's thirst to control and contain all the information in the known universe, the cloud, ebooks, etc.) is if bytes will "replace" books. To many, it certainly looks that way on any given day at any given rest stop on the Information Highway. After all, the current Holy Grail of Deep Geek Hipness is to have everything -- every scrap, note, frame, word, and image -- stored on one's iPad for display at the touch of a fingertip. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Be that as it may, the book is not going anywhere. Indeed, the book -- in form and concept -- is the foundation of the new media; it is contained within and yet contains it. The very way in which we discuss the new media ( web pages, web browsing, and that constant root of all places cyber, the place, space and file called "index.html" ) asserts that the book remains the dominant permanent record of all things worth keeping. Storage mediums come and go in the cyberverse ( One word: "floppy."), but I don't think that the age when all information and opinions and records and history is held in some immense GoogleServer pile is one which we should welcome. Distributed information is more powerful and more secure when it is distributed not only throughout the Net, but in more than one medium.

The way-new information universe, straddled by the ever growing hulk that is ("First don't be evil." ) Google is barely out of infancy and just about due to grow into "The Terrible Twos." The book, by contrast, represent a fully mature information retrieval system.

What is good about the book? What makes it persistently valuable in storing, not the trivia of the day, but that which is valuable to humanity over the long term?

Let's review:

1) No "advanced" technology required. Ability to manufacture present in all areas of the globe.
2 ) Crude but functioning units can be made by kindergartners with pencil, paper and glue.
3) Operating system and interface rock solid.
4) All types of information can be stored.
5) Has been demonstrated to be able to retain information in retrievable form across several thousand years.
6) Of the two, the User will often crash first.
7) All parts can be recycled.
8) All or part can be backed-up at any Kinkos.
9) Can be powered for hours with one candle.
10) All users receive up to 12 years of interface training free.

Add to that the tactile and aesthetic pleasures of fine books where art combines with craft, and you have something that will be with humankind long after today's high-tech toys are consigned to a museum and listed in their paperback catalog. Perhaps there may be some new innovation at the dawn of some new day that will really and for all time displace the book, but that innovation and that dawn of that day is not yet. For now, if it is a really important bit of knowledge or expression we put it in a book. Just to be safe.


[Republished from 2006]

Update: Today, Webber sends in this wonderful cartoon.


Posted by gerardvanderleun at May 30, 2017 1:20 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Of course, Gerard, we've double-dumbed downed the education in this country 12 years of interface usage education may not be enough. Luckily, there's an app for that:

Posted by: Jewel at January 31, 2012 8:04 PM

Having observed the readiness, indeed eagerness, of the Eloi-wannabees to toss the baby out with any bath water showing the tiniest tinge of pollution, I find it difficult to agree with your optimism. One of the drivers for the current mania is that the makers and sellers of books as physical object have abandoned any pretense of fair dealing or rational business, seeing themselves as Charon with a strong Union -- they will be paid, or the heavens fall. That drives people to seek alternatives, rationalizing the disadvantages away as they leap upon ways around the rapacious ferrymen.
In a way it can be seen as a good thing. Much, perhaps most, of what we're producing today is drivel, evanescent at best and ideologically driven at worst (as ever was, did we but know it). The basics are firmly encoded; our successors (we are unlikely to have descendants, for multiple obvious reasons) will be better off starting a square or two back, with solid reality, instead of trying to proceed from bases founded on Political Correctness and the appetites of politicians.


Posted by: Ric Locke at February 1, 2012 4:07 AM

A month and a few days ago I would have agreed with you. Then my children gave me a Kindle Fire for Christmas. I've read 10 books on it already. Its very easy on the eyes, you can read it with no lights on, you can store an entire library on there, and the cost of the kindle books is far cheaper than the late fees at my local library. I may come back around to thinking that dead-tree books are superior, but for the moment, I have to go with the Kindle. Kid in the candy store and all of that . . .

Posted by: GW at February 1, 2012 4:21 AM

I got a Kindle for Christmas. I have Kindle for Mac. I'll keep both for back-up only. Great piece Gerard.

Posted by: MizzE at February 1, 2012 5:00 AM

Kindle is great, but it's merely the magnetic tape back up of the current age.

Posted by: Velociman at February 1, 2012 5:37 AM

I love my Kindle, too...but after a little more than a year, it constantly freezes. It has gone wonky on me. That's the point.

Posted by: Jewel at February 1, 2012 6:32 AM

Books are very resistant to surreptious editing. All of that "Cloud" stuff sounds just a little to chancy to me for various reasons.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at February 1, 2012 8:17 AM

At my daughter's gymnastics class I showed the mom next to me a strange pen I had found. I told her it writes pretty well and offered her to try it. She said she doesn't write. What with the phone and the computer at work she doesn't need to. So she didn't try it.

Posted by: Sush at February 1, 2012 10:06 AM

No blue screen of death with books.
No battery chargers to worry about.
You can take books camping for a week or more.
Judges can "throw the book" at someone.
Bookies can't "make kindle"
A book can be dropped in a stream and you can start reading it immediately following retrieval. I wouldn't suggest trying that with a Kindle.
I've never heard a middle- or high- school boy offer to carry a girl's kindles. He could get slapped.
Bands can't kindle gigs.

I'm sure there's more...

Posted by: Former Lurker at February 1, 2012 12:27 PM

The metaphors will live long after their object becomes a matter of collectibility, elitism, and conspicuous consumption.

"Why yes, m'dear, I have books, several hundred real bound volumes. Won't you come up and see them? Oh, and do try the Madeira, it's delicious..."


Posted by: Ric Locke at February 1, 2012 2:25 PM

I'll add No. 11

Impervious to EMP. Books throughout history have been like cockroaches, you can't really destroy them no matter how hard you try. Digital? Pfffft, it's gone forever.

Posted by: I-RIGHT-I at February 1, 2012 4:39 PM

Oh, people are going to use e-books in a big way, but mostly for the sort of throw-away reading that one never goes back to (I'm looking at you, genre fiction), and I expect, those sorts of books that are continually updated, as in the great scam that is college textbooks. But a decent non-fiction book? those are going to stay bound for a long time yet.

I do find that among the people I know who have got some sort of e-book reader, that one of the main reasons they got it was that they were running out of room for more books. One person I is crowing about all the 'free' books he's been able to find--Mostly the usual 19th century pantheon, but also classical translations and so forth.

There is an increase in access to information going on here that I'm not sure is appreciated at all by most.

Posted by: Eric Blair at February 2, 2012 4:51 AM

Does anyone remember Fahrenheit 451 ? When everything is digital, they will only need to unplug the machine and all will be lost. I just read a book using Kindle for PC, and am not impressed. In my case, its a desktop, but holding a laptop is not much better. Don't know if holding a "Fire" or other display would be as comfortable as paperbacks.

Posted by: tomw at February 2, 2012 12:06 PM


Don't know if holding a "Fire" or other display would be as comfortable as paperbacks.

Yes, it is, and often much more comfy as one only needs to press or wag a finger to turn a page.

I have a Kindle 3G and a Fire...the 3G is just the right weight & size for reading while reclining (I'm a side sleeper & reader). The Fire is heavier, but sometimes I want a back light for night reading without disturbing the Spousal Unit or in-flight and sometimes I want the lighter eyeball friendly 3G...and sometimes I just need an iPod for audible books. Try gardening, cycling or jogging while reading a print book or a Kindle.

When reading poli-sci, history, ref/tech books & such I often have several books open, so it's nice to be able to research online from the e-reader. I look forward to being able to have multiple ebooks open and to cross reference between them.

However, I will never stop collecting printed books and I still buy as many books as before e-readers and often buy both versions of a keeper. Browsing the stacks and tables of a good bookstore or finding a bargain on the remainder table is one of life's joys, is it not?

Posted by: BJM at February 2, 2012 2:57 PM

Isaac Asimov beat the New York Times to this: Many decades ago, he wrote a humorous story about the re-invention of the printed book, titled "The Holmes-Ginsbook Device".

Posted by: pst314 at April 1, 2012 7:29 PM

@Jewel, have you tried "Restart" on your Kindle to fix the freezing? Assuming you don't have a Kindle Fire, press the Home key, then press Menu, then select Restart. It will shut the Kindle down and restart fresh. It takes a couple of minutes and there is no chance you lose any books. Also, I turn off my Kindle when I stop using it. That requires HOLDING the power switch to the Off position for about 8-10 seconds. A brief press of the power switch toward the Off position simply puts it to sleep. I've never had a freeze up after I learned the real Off procedure.

I read much more now on my Kindle than I read physical books. I have been a book club member in the past. I'm toward the Aspy end of the curve, so books are about the info inside, not the feel or smell.

I don't think buyer's tendency to buy junk books is an artifact of e-book technology or hardware, but of people. Everyone says they want just the news, not all of the junk around the news. CSPAN is among the lowest rated of all TV networks. I read almost exclusively non-fiction serious history and political topics plus classics. You can use your car to go watch Jackass 2 or drive to a lecture on classical Greek art. Don't blame the car because people are idiots.

The Kindles, other than the Fire, are lightweight, sturdy, and reliable. The Fire is heavier and reading on it is like reading on a small laptop or tablet. The lit screen will cause eye strain after a while. I often read this blog from my Kindle while taking a break in my company vehicle while parked near "BF Egypt". I've posted comments to this blog from my Kindle. My Kindle ranks with my discovery of MP3 players in the late- 1990s as life changing. Maybe that says more about me than the devices, but so be it.

Posted by: Scott M at April 2, 2012 2:38 AM

I love books; but even back when I was in college and working in the library, it was obvious that the college library was underused. Students whom you would have expected to be constantly browsing the shelves never bothered unless forced.

I have a disabled friend with a brilliant mind who loves books, but who did very little library research for her Ph.D because it was difficult for her to get books without help. It turned out years later that there'd already been a book out that kind of obviated any need for the thesis that she wrote (though she could have written something else in the same area using the additional info in the book), but she never ran across any references to it and her advisers didn't know it either. Meanwhile, now that she doesn't have to run to the library and physically manipulate huge tomes, she can do awesome research from primary sources.

I love books. I hope we keep books. They are durable and useful. But they don't do you any good if you can't use them or don't know they're there. Me, I can stay home and still do research out of rare books from the 1700's and 1600's, without the rare books folks hovering over me and making me use gloves, and without the crushing guilt of accidentally making a small tear or having pieces fall off the binding. I couldn't afford to go to Europe to look at the buildings housing these, much less have a hope of getting research credentials at some of these places.

Books are awesome. But digitized books are also awesome.

Posted by: Maureen at April 3, 2012 7:33 AM

Another factor in books' favor, at least for myself, is the smell, or scent, of an old book.

Each turn of the page not only opens to me the words within, but gently wafts into my olfactory organs the scents of days gone by, reminding me of others' hands and eyes sharing, in the past, the pleasures of the read which I hold in my hands today.

Posted by: John Venlet at September 30, 2013 5:30 AM

I'm pretty sure that in a few years books will be cool and gadgets will be less so. People will always love the gadgets, but they'll lose that desperate "you don't have an x???" societal dominance thing. You know, where if you don't have the latest phone you're a social pariah. When I went to high school, digital watches were that way. Now they're almost unused.

Posted by: Christopher Taylor at September 30, 2013 9:03 AM

Book him, Daniel!

Posted by: Frank P at September 30, 2013 9:28 AM

Book him, Daniel!

Posted by: Frank P at September 30, 2013 9:28 AM

Jewel, check out Kindle support on If the reset doesn't work, call or chat online with them. They will probably just send you a replacement, at no charge. They did that for us when the wife's Fire HD went wacky.

I was an ebook skeptic. Then I discovered I could borrow ebooks from the library, and read them on my early generation smartphone. It was clunky, but it meant I could read anywhere, any time.

The wife was a skeptic also. I showed her how to do it on her phone. Then I mentioned all of the time she spent waiting for people to show up for appointments out in the field. Suddenly my library queue was full of vampire romance books.

I bought her a Kindle 3G. She then spent more than the price of the device on a nice cover with a light that is powered by the device, and a protective film for the screen, plus a purse to hold the thing. I continued to read on my phone (bigger, better screen).

A year or so later, she plopped for the Kindle Fire HD. I used to tell folks that it was never further from her than an arm's length, except when she's in the shower. She told me it's about that far away when she's in the shower, too. The older Kindle? It's mine now. Still works great.

Gerard, I remember you commenting on the awesomeness of Walmart, in re: being able to sell a complete Thanksgiving dinner for $20. Amazon has Walmart beaten in awesomeness. They have completely destroyed the old, elitist publishing system, and hooray for that. They are in the process of doing the same thing to retailing. It's gonna take a while to see the results of that.

But Amazon makes life in their universe very easy, very convenient, and very rich in content, customer service and simplicity. They are like a luxury resort that supplies every whim, every service, but they charge Motel 6 prices for it. They may have enslaved my household, but it's nothing like any slavery in history.

Posted by: Gordon at September 30, 2013 2:08 PM

There seems to be a lot of false dichotomy argument going on here. Liking books and recognizing them as a work of art doesn't mean e-readers are trash, people. You don't have to get defensive about them, they are great in their place. I wish I had one, and my book is up for e-readers. But the book is a superior platform and something objectively superior for an overall reading experience.

Posted by: Christopher Taylor at September 30, 2013 4:14 PM

I think that I shall never look

At something as lovely as a book

Posted by: chasmatic at September 30, 2013 4:19 PM

This school year, 45 states won't include cursive writing in their curriculum. Even now many teens state they "can't read cursive". It is almost incomprehensible. We will need a new college major or classes in cursive so scholars will be able to read "old" letters and documents.
I have a Kindle, but love books. Kindle can change and delete what is purchased. They did it on novel 1984. (Too true)

Thanks for including historical articles like the one on the Stanley brothers on your site.

Posted by: Grace at September 30, 2013 6:07 PM

I love my Nook, especially for as much travel that I do. But I recognize its drawbacks: I can't upload new books unless I'm in the States (or coming in on a VPN that looks like it's in the US) due to overseas copyright restrictions; the battery is pretty strong, but it does run down eventually; and if I drop the thing on a hard surface, it'll break. So traditional books still have a large place in my life. I don't see that changing.

Posted by: waltj at September 30, 2013 7:42 PM

ebooks falter because the big publishers raised their ebook prices to $14-$15. I'm not going to pay that sort of money for a author who isn't one of my favorites, and I even think twice about the favorites. There are plenty of OK writers selling for $3-$6 dollars, and even a few of my favorites at $9. Guess who gets my money?

Posted by: chuck at November 6, 2015 9:25 AM

I love print books, and I publish all my works on Print on Demand as well as e-book form. but e-books are not "faltering" in any way. They've plateaued, because only so many people read to begin with, and of them, only so many people have an e-reader.

For Authors, the present system with e-books is a HUGE HUGE HUGE benefit, a Godsend. It obliterates the leftist mostly female-ran gatekeepers and lets you directly reach out to customers, with a bookshelf that never goes away; nobody is going to take your book off the shelf to replace it with Chelsea Clinton's latest book.

Posted by: Christopher Taylor at November 6, 2015 12:55 PM

This does seem like a Rockefeller type strategy. First drive 'em out of business, and then replace 'em. We shall see where this goes.

Posted by: Mahtomedi at November 6, 2015 6:16 PM

Nothing beats a book for killing a spider.

Posted by: John The River at November 10, 2015 2:06 PM

Kindle: First, Amazon is evil. Second, Amazon 'pushes' ads and unwanted Apps onto your Kindle, most of which you (the person that paid for the device) cannot erase. Third, Amazon has become the tail that wags the dog. Baen publishing (in order to sell on Amazon) was made to increase their prices greatly and limit the way they sold books on their own web-site. Did I mention that Amazon is evil?

A book smells better than a Kindle.

Posted by: John the River at May 31, 2017 8:58 AM

To John the River:
In 2003 I was living in the Philippines. I had a maid come over on the weekends to do laundry, wash the car, cook and leave. Most folks had a live in maid. I didn't want that as I run around in my underwear if I want. Anyhow the maid squished one of the several "live in lizards" by squishing it with my Bible. The little guy lived under a napkin dispenser located on my dinner table. He ended his life getting pressed between Matthew 6 and 7. Slight stain, but I smile when I pass through its message about judging and throwing pearls before swine!

Posted by: Snakepit Kansas at June 2, 2017 5:22 PM
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