Books, Uses, and Users

How do people use books?  If e-books are coming (….or not?), will they supplant printed books?  Is the end of printed books, at hand –leading to a far-off historical survey  "The History of The Printed Book 1450-2050"?

People use books in simply countless ways.  For a period in the twentieth century, "using books" meant "reading," and "reading" meant "cultural reproduction."  The text, in other words –the printed text– was simply an accessory, a means to an end, much the same relationship of "ingredients" to "food" –the latter being a far more expansive, culturally-laden term than mere instrumental "ingredients."

The evolution of the e-text has forced re-consideration of the printed text.  For librarians, "reading" often came to mean "engaging in cultural production or reproduction," but librarians were always deeply aware of the instrumental uses of volumes of printed paper, gathered into quires and sewn into durable bindings.  The uses are many:

  • The book not meant to be read all the way through: reference books.  Think the automotive or equipment bluebooks –consulted for various bits of information.  One definition of a reference books is, "a book not meant to be read cover-to-cover," but referred to for discrete bits.
  • The text-book –no fun to read, but intensely studied (even memorized) –replete with graphs, diagrams, tables, illustrations, and now even DVDs.
  • The cook-book –indispensable for kitchen knowledge –sometimes not read all the way through, but sometimes.  The sheer exuberance of Mastering the Art of French Cooking was so beautifully caught in the film Julie and Julia.
  • The technical manual –think how-to on steroids.  Some (yellow ones) are for dummies, but most are for very smart people, or at least, people trained in a certain field.  One could read all the way through Linux Network Servers, daunting as that might be to many.
  • The musical score –not a technical manual, and not always played all the way through.
  • The phone book –ever moved to a new community?  Could you live without it?
  • The multi-volume comprehensive account of something-or-other: for example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's life, or Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics.  One could read all the volumes –but who really does so?
  • Collected essays, either by an author, or on a topic, problem, or event.
  • The index, abstract, or guide to other items that have been published, somewhere.
  • The novel –ah, pride of place!  And other literary books –the gateway to true reading as cultural production.

Only a few of those are the clear referents of "cultural production," although they are all certainly cultural productions of one kind or another.

So what of e-books –when they come, what will they replace?

The first, most logical kind of printed book that e-books have already replaced (to a very large extent) is the multi-volume reference work.  Encycopaedia Britannica has swiftly re-invented itself to compete with the new Wikipedia, a resource that has its own problems.  Multi-volume reference works were always essentially databases, and the features associated with full-text searching (such as the ability to search lexicographical citations in the Oxford English Dictionary Online) offer substantial new usefulness.  Index and abstracts were never really very useful in print format –they were only useful because there were no alternatives.

Textbooks and technical manuals have followed swiftly –some computer applications now come with minimal reference material since manuals and user-developed sites are so plentifully available.  Collected essays –which behave like journal articles, but appear as bound monographs– have very successfully migrated to e-books.

Cookbooks and telephone directories, however, have hit a curious bump in the road.  Does anyone else remember the predictions of the demise of the telephone book? –and yet here in 2010 they are alive and well.  In part, this is due to the dreadful interface of most online telephone directories.  If I want to know the name of a pizzeria in Bridgeport near my workplace, WhitePages or some other source will be happy to tell me about pizzerias miles away, and I will have to dig up local establishments from buried listings, or use a very cumbersome search interface which also collects as much data about me as possible.  Online recipes are very popular, but cookbooks continue to sell –glossy, illustrated, and less bare-bones than the old Joy of Cooking, but equally useful in a working environment (the kitchen) where spattering grease or batter, or vapors, may interfere with a screen, even an iPad.

The place of "literary reading" (fiction and nonfiction) seems less assured in the e-book format.  To be sure, e-book readers are wonderful for readers with vision problems –one can expand Kindle's text easily.  Traveling or commuting readers also appreciate the compact features.  But the marketplace difficulties mentioned in the previous posting (so far the point has been to sell the reading device, not the text), and infelicities of interfaces, and the sheer price of the reading devices, has limited the market. 

A bound volume is still easier to put down quickly, pick up quickly (no restart time), thumb through, annotate, sneak to the end, compare passages, turn the page corner down, and all the habits good and bad of inveterate print readers and books.  The working bookshelf in a living-space, home environment is still a desirable status symbol –complementing the wide screen TV and the stylish MP3 player of your choice.

When all is said and done, more serious "literary reading" (cultural production) is still deeply associated with the values, strengths, and cachet of the book as a cultural object.  The iPad could change some of this dynamic, and its multi-media abilities could prove critical in the lucrative textbook market.  Human behavior changes slowly, despite its technological environment.  Fountain pens continue to be sold, but they connote a value different from their worth a century ago.  The book as cultural object will continue in fond regard for some time yet –how long, who knows?  TV was supposed to be the death-knell of film and radio –the short-run effects of technology are usually overblown and the long-term effects usually under-estimated. 

Plus ça change, plus c'est la
même chose

–Gavin Ferriby

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