The Strange Persistence of Printed Books: Mouse Books

Brothers_K_grande_246097a1-d3d3-4008-856a-487204748363_540xThe digital era was supposed to make books and lengthy reading obsolete: Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia, originator of and memorably critiqued faulty assumptions in 2010, Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age (here as .pdf; see also my posts here and here). "Boring old books" played a part. Clay Shirky of NYU wrote, "the literary world is now losing its normative hold" on our culture," "–no one reads War and Peace. It's too long, and not so interesting. . . This observation is no less sacrilegious for being true." Ah, the satisfying thunk of a smashed idol. Goodbye, long, boring not so interesting books.

Except that a funny thing has happened on the way to the book burning. (Danke schoen, Herr Goebbels) Printed books have somehow held on: unit sales of print books were up 1.9% in 2016, at 687.2 million world-wide, the fourth straight year of print growth. Rumors of demise now seem premature. What gives?

The print book is far more subtly crafted than many digital soothsayers realize. Printed books have evolved continuously since Gutenberg: just take a look at scholarly monographs from 1930, 1950, 1970, 1990, and 2010. The current printed book, whether popular, trade, high-concept, or scholarly monograph, is a highly-designed and highly-evolved object.  Publishers are very alert to readers' desires and what seems to work best.  It was hubris to think that a lazily conceived and hastily devised digital book format could simply replace a printed book with an object equally useful: look at the evolution of the epub format (for example).

Designers will always refer to what has been designed previously, as well as new and present needs and uses when designing an object: consider the humble door. Poorly done e-books were a product of the "move fast and break things" culture that doomed many ideas that appealed to thinking deeper than the one-sided imaginations of bro-grammer digital denizens.

Enter Mouse Books. Some months ago David Dewane was riding the bus in Chicago. "[I] happened to be reading a physical book that was a piece of classic literature. I wondered what all the other people on the bus were reading." He wondered, why don't those people read those authors on their smart phones? "I wondered if you made the book small enough—like a passport or a smart notebook—if you could carry it around with you anywhere."

David and close friends began to experiment, and eventually designed printed books the size and thickness of a mobile phone. They chose classic works available in the public domain, either complete essays (Thoreau's On the Duty of Civil Disobedience) or chapters (Chapters 4 and 5 of The Brothers Karamazov, "The Grand Inquisitor," in Constance Garnett's translation. These are simply, legibly printed in Bookman Old Style 11-point font. Each book or booklet is staple bound ("double stitched") with a sturdy paper cover, 40-50 pages, 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches or just about 9 by 14 cm –a very high quality, small product.

David and the Mouse Team (Disney copyright forbids calling them Mouseketeers) aim for ordinary users of mobile phones. They want to provide a serious text that can be worn each day "on your body" in a pocket, purse, or bag, and gives a choice between pulling out the phone or something more intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Mouse Books give easy access to classic texts in a new format –especially essays or stories that often are not commercially viable on their own (such as Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, or Thoreau's essay, which are invariably packaged with other texts in a binding that will bring sufficient volume and profit to market.) The Mouse Books project wants to offer readers more ideas, insight, and connections for readers' lives.

As a business, Mouse Books is still experimental, and has sought "early adopters:" willing co-experimentalists and subjects. This means experimenting with the practice of reading, with classics texts of proven high quality, and complementing the texts with audio content, podcasts, and a social media presence. These supplements are also intended to be mobile –handy nearly anywhere you could wear ear buds.

As a start-up or experiment, Mouse Books has stumbled from time to time in making clear what a subscriber would get for funding the project on Kickstarter, what the level of subscriptions are, and differences in US and outside-the-US subscriptions. The subscriptions levels on the Mouse Books drip (or site do not match the subscription option offered directly on the Mouse Books Club web site. As a small "virtual company," this kind of confusion goes with the territory –part of what "early adaptors" come to expect. That said, Mouse Books is also approaching sufficient scale that marketing clarity will be important for the project to prosper.

This is a charming start-up that deserves support, and is highly consonant with the mission of librarians: to connect with others both living and dead, to build insight, to generate ideas. The printed book and those associated with it–bookstores, libraries, editors, writers, readers, thinkers–are stronger with innovative experiments such as Mouse Books. The printed book continues to evolve, and remains a surprisingly resilient re-emergent, legacy technology.

More about Mouse books:

Web site:

drip site (blog entries):



Why Do Books Matter?

. . . Many people have concluded already that they don't. If you have concluded that they are irrelevant and old-fashioned, you probably will not be open to this discussion.  I encourage you, nevertheless, to have an open mind.

I’m a librarian and a book person (who’d have thought?) and therefore probably against the grain of American culture right now.  Books have been enormously influential in my life; they gave me an outlet, vision, and ambition when I was very young, and (some of them) have continued to challenge, delight, and astound me ever since.  Some books I count as old friends, and its a diverse lot: Lucretius, Søren Kierkegaard, Frederick Buechner, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor, Robertson Davies, Nora Ephron, Peter Brown, P.D. James — probably my educational and professional background shows there,  and some (like Brian Greene) I don’t understand very well.  I continue to read both printed books and digital texts; my current project is John Eliot Norton’s Bach: Music In The Castle Of Heaven.

To sum up a counter position: A “book person” is an anachronism: the world is digital, information moves at blazing speed, and care, nuance, and precision are luxuries of the past.  Readers have become users; teachers have become suppliers, and students have become customers.  The competition for attention drowns out the sustained attention any book requires, and the mark of the contemporary is multi-tasking, even though humans have been shown to do that very badly.  Instead of nuance, we have media scolds and bludgeons; instead of discussion we have talking points and position papers; instead of reading we have scanning or surfing.  Is it any wonder that we wind up with in a bitterly contentious, polarized society marked by increasing, sharp differences between the very rich, the poor, those caught in the diminishing middle, —where everything is on the market, and humans are either the customers or the product?  Disruption is the word of the moment, nevermind whether it is a well-establish and solidly argued social good or simple mediocrity —that it’s disrupted is enough to draw the line between the tired old and the shiny new.  Aaron Bady’s sharp questioning of Clay Shirky reveal how possible futures become taken for inevitable outcomes, and the slippery proposition that those outside any institution, profession, or work are bound to understand it better than its practitioners.  “Open is open” seems to end all discussion, period.  It is alleged, if you are part of “closed” (read “old) system, you couldn’t possibly understand.

Printed books are an “old” format bound for disruption, right?  Turns out: not so fast.  People continue to want them, and sales remain strong, despite Amazon’s assault on bookstores.  (And I do mean assault.)  The “friction” (or difficulty) of obtaining a print book —you have to go somewhere to get one: library, bookstore, or online— is also a friction for the publisher (lately restyled as the “intellectual property owner” —but that’s another blog entry).  Once published and sold, a print book can’t be disappeared in an Orwellian or Statist (Fascist) manner.  Case in point: last summer the merger of Penguin and Random House led to the disappearing of 1,400 Random House digital books from the SHU library catalog —the terms of the deal seems to have indicated that the new management (mostly from Penguin) would not continue the contracts with digital book aggregators (in our case, eBrary Academic Complete).  Suddenly links didn’t work, and a few weeks later records displaying them were deleted from our library system.  Had we purchase those 1,400 books as printed, the library would still have them available.  At least a few of them are bound to have been of enduring value and related to SHU’s curriculum (it was Random House, an “old” and “quality” publisher).  Now we have to pay more —either acquire print copies, or find where they are available digitally.

This doesn’t get at why books really matter, of course.  I’m thinking of academic books: scholarly books, and high-quality books for the wider market (such as Robert Caro’s everlasting biography of Lyndon B. Johnson).  What matters is not their format, but their content, their intellectual, nuanced exploration and exposition of a subject.  Format is not incidental, but neither is it crucial.

Books are critical to education and the life of a culture because of the sustained attention required to write and to read them.  Books are critical because they encode or contain thinking that can become part of a public discourse —can be challenged, confirmed, critiqued, welcomed, despised, all the possible outcomes of seriously considering a proposition or an argument.  A book sticks around in a stable form so that the author cannot suddenly alter  its contents to suit latter convenience, prove herself or himself right, or respond to critics.

Books are destructible, and tyrants have long sought to destroy them.  Book burnings became a badge of totalitarianism in the 20th century.  But otherwise all the copies of a book are hard to destroy.  A widely distributed supply and market system made it highly likely that somewhere, somehow, a copy might survive.  This has mattered in the face of tyrant, and it matter most during the period when so many texts went underground during the great disruptions of the early Middle Ages.  This list of ancient authors who survived to be read later on the basis of a single copy is a long list, and includes works by Aristotle, Lucretius, and Tacitus.

The idea that books as a technology of learning are obsolete takes a very short view.  To be sure: some books are obsolete: who bothers to look up past market prices for securities in a printed volume?  A much longer view sees the value in the conversations among and between generations.  Partisans of the “originalist” view of the U.S. Constitution need to know what those original views are; partisans or a more evolutionist view need a sense of difference over time, of intervening realities and developments.  At the far end of this this longer horizon is the Long Now Foundation, Stewart Brand’s striking question: what are we doing that could make any difference 10,000 years from now?  (See The Long Now Foundation)

A neo-liberal university in which the customer (students + parents) is king may be able to “satisfice” their information needs by simply pulling random hits from a casual Google search.  That sells students and learning short, perhaps disastrously short.  Learning is more than simply a private good to be parceled out to those who can pay.  I believe in books, because books give witness to thinking that might propell such a university away from a view which spells long term disaster for learning, for universities, and for free society.



Who Owns The Future Of Books?

My prevous post took a brief look at the religious ideas that permeate not only Jaron Lanier's Who Owns The Future? (whether he explicitly acknowledges those ideas or not). This post considers what he contributes about books, and the future of books.

(Lanier, author of Who Owns The Future? appears on the SHU campus on Wednesday, October 9, 7:00 p.m. Schine Auditorium)

Books have become a cultural flash point that inspire "maniacal scheming" (see pages 352-360) –an unwitting testament to books' enduring iconic, cultural power.  What bothers Lanier is that current development of networks –the Siren Servers that seek total computational awareness and control–might lead to losing "the pattern of what a book is in the stream of human life and thought." (353)  After sketching some possible future scenarios about the fate of books, authors, and readers, Lanier offers a definition (one of the very best I have ever read):

A book isn't an artifact, but a synthesis of fully realized individual personhood with human continuity. The economic model of our networks has to be optimized to preserve that synthesis, or it will not serve [hu]mankind.(358)

Lanier here touches upon the emotional salience and cultural power that books evoke.  The uneasiness Lanier shares with many is not just about texts (tomes, bindings), but about human lives.  "Human life is its own purpose," he continues.  "Thinking about people in terms of the components on a network is–in intellectual and spiritual terms–a slow suicide for the researchers and a slow homicide against everyone else."(360)  The ingestion of millions of e-texts into Artificial Intelligence divorces what humans write about from who they are, and what makes their lives meaningful to them.  "Whether we will destroy culture in order to save/digitize it is still unknown."(353) (Lanier references that metaphor to the Vietnam war.)

What makes a liberal education liberal–freeing–is the strong association (synthesis) of particular texts with particular people, moments, events, movements, points of view.  The real intellectual problem with Wikipedia isn't its alleged accuracy or inaccuracy. Rather, it "proposes that knowledge can be divorced from point of view." Note that Lanier writes knowledge –not data, not information, not the "flashes of thought" that might be "inserted meaningfully into a shared semantic structure" (ibid.)  Knowledge is what humans make for other humans.  Strictly speaking, computers can store, locate, index, and transform data, but can't know in the same sense.

These are my own thoughts, sourced in Lanier's text, which I found to enormously helpful in articulating the fundamentally different business model of a library from a database, even a sort of meta-database (a database of databases –a discovery service, in other words).  What libraries are about is the discovery of knowledge in human communities and continuities, in a symmetrical transaction that celebrates unanswered questions (intellectual risk) and acknowledges the presence of other sources of knowledge –whether living persons, libraries, databases, search engines, or other human syntheses of any and every kind.  

This transaction (process, pedagogy) thrusts libraries into an educational process squarely at odds with Siren Servers that are naracisstic (as though they alone collect data), risk-externalizing (questions and uncertainties never belong to the Server, always to the user), and depend upon extreme information assymetry –users can't know what the Server already knows about them, and how it seeks to modify their behavior.

Understanding the cultural term "book" a "a synthesis of fully realized individual personhood with human continuity" respects authors, readers, and the economic and intellectual chain of power and responsibility that connects them.  This also illuminates why some (many?) people care so passionately about books –what they care about is human continuity, personhood, what makes a human life worth living.  What better question could a liberal arts education pursue?  What could be more "relevant" to the challenges of living in a "flat," networked world?

Remarks at the Rededication of the Ryan-Matura Library, Nov. 2, 2011

First, on behalf of the entire library staff I wish to thank all those in the University and in the construction trades which made this day possible.  What a pleasure it was to work with Marc Izzo and Scott Rowland in particular.  I also want to extend my personal special thanks to Patrick Rose, our architect, who patiently listened to explanations of why the library needed one feature or another, and insights from our regular observation of how library users actually use the library.

I also wish to recognize the good work of Amanda Timolat, our Archivist, and Emily Underwood, her student library assistant, in creating the display behind the glass wall at the rear of the Chartwell's Starbucks Library Cafe.

As you may have read, or heard here today, this library was dedicated on September 28, 1968 and re-dedicated as the Ryan-Matura Library on September 11, 1993.  I want to take a moment to recall the first event, in 1968.  The speaker that day was Philip J. Scharper, and the guest of honor was our founder, the Most Reverend Walter Curtis, Bishop of Bridgeport. 

Mr. Scharper was a very active Catholic writer and publisher.  Trained at Woodstock Theological Seminary, a protégé of John Courtney Murray, he never entered the priesthood but instead taught briefly before he became associate editor of Commonweal magazine in 1955.  He was specially consulted by the Second Vatican Council on the Catholic Church’s role in the modern world.  From 1957 to 1970 he was editor in chief at Sheed & Ward before he co-founded Orbis Books in 1970.  Three years later, he edited and published Gustavo Gutierrez’ famous book A Theology of Liberation.  Mr. Scharper remained at Orbis until his death in 1985.

On that day in September 1968 Scharper held up in particular a phrase from the British writer Thomas Carlyle, that “the library is the beating heart of the University.” In 1968 that was a brave hope, as the young University was still coming together, but Scharper connected what this library represented then with the broad intellectual tradition of the Church and in particular the tradition of the love of learning and the desire for God lived out in the Benedictine tradition.  He concluded that the library is not only to be the beating heart of a community of learning, but of a community of love.

Scharper, following Carlyle before him, was attempting to give real life to a phrase that sometimes can become a tired academic cliché, that the library is the heart of the University.  Since 1968 many things in universities have changed, and I am so bold as to suggest that that familiar phrase needs to be re-positioned.   Many of the elements of this University –food service, athletic facilities, public safety officers, library, even the Chapel –could and do exist in other contexts without a University.  For example, the Town of Fairfield has a vibrant and thriving library.  

The real heart of the University is in the daily interaction of teachers and learners.  Without a faculty and without students, together, we don’t have a University.  Those teachers and learners –both faculty and students are teachers and learners in different ways—need a variety of contexts and settings to pursue their work: classrooms, laboratories, overseas locations, offices, clinics, field work, and even a library.

The library is part of the beating heart of the university—that contact of learners and teachers—when it truly enacts and exemplifies part of the University’s mission.  This is the truth that shines through this renovation, and how it shines through can be seen in library architecture. 

The original 19th-century modern academic library buildings were reader-oriented: books in the service of readers.  Large windows illuminated alcoves and bays with natural light for reading; the monastic tradition was strong in these buildings, whether James Gamble Roger’s Gothic Revival Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, or McKim, Mead and White’s Beaux-Arts Low Library at Columbia University.  These libraries featured large ceremonial entry spaces that usher a reader into an immediate connection with books.

But the tidal wave of publishing and new books in the 20th century required a new paradigm, the book-centered library.  Butler Library at Columbia University exemplifies this: a steel-framed structure of 18 levels of central stacks are surrounded by offices and seminar rooms with a ceremonial main reading room on the front end.  Essentially the book-oriented library is a warehouse, one hopes an elegant warehouse, and these buildings were progressively enlarged not to accommodate additional readers or services, but additional collections.

The original modular design of this library, designed by Val Carlson of Shelton, followed the book-centered paradigm of library design: a maximum of flexible space for a growing collection, designed to be expanded back into what is now the parking lot as necessary.  Over the decades, areas of this building have been re-purposed so many times that it is difficult to envision what this library was originally intended to be.  In any case, the advent of information technology began to put and end to book-centered library design by the 1990s.

This renovation represents a third paradigm of library design, the learning-centered library.  These spaces have been re-designed to host and facilitate learning interactions in many ways: group interaction, individual study, interaction with digital collections far away from this building, and especially interactions with every member of the library staff.  Some people look at this library and see a building, others see a collection, but I see people: students, librarians, faculty, and how they interact.  This is a learning-centered library, and all our librarians are educators in the context of the University. 

Above all, the learner here is meant to take responsibility for her or his own learning.  There is no one moment when this happens, but it happens whenever study becomes learning: how history majors become historians, how biology majors become biologists.  This library is a set of spaces, resources, and above all people that foster effective intentional learning.  We are a teaching and learning enterprise, and we join our student and faculty colleagues here as collaborators enacting the learning mission of this University.  The goal of self-directed learning is meant to become a reality here.

Here, Now, In Person: Library collections in a shared environment

Libraries traditional collected various materials, especially books, journals, printed material of all kinds, and sometimes art pieces or other physical items. As time went on the list expanded to sound recordings and videos, whatever the device (LP records, CDs, DVDs, etc.)

At the same time, libraries embraced cooperation: the "inter-library loan office" (resource sharing) at Sacred Heart University Library is a vital service.  "Loan" is now a misnomer: more than half of our resource sharing transactions obtain a copy (digital or photocopy) which is not to be returned –a service, not a loan.

Indeed, with such cooperation, with e-books, with digital media of all kinds and better players (iPads, Kindles, iPods, and all their kin), why bother trying to gather or collect anything?  Why not simply depend upon the network?

This is the crux of the pundits' argument that libraries will simply disappear in the brave new information world where everything is available freely and easily.  Unfortunately, that world doesn't yet exist, and is unlikely to do so.  Information will not be available freely and easily for the simple reason that a great deal of it will continue –at least for the foreseeable future– to be controlled by for-profit corporations (e.g. Ebsco, Elsevier, ProQuest, and their kin). 

Of course, such information can be easily accessed via web browsers –but only with the right authorizations and passwords.  The proxy server makes some of this invisible, especially on campus, but those authorizations are still there.  The great information data-banks that corporations have built can exchange data but are no more likely to merge than will the great and regional banks suddenly coalesce into one financial institution.Information will remain divided into corporate silos, some openly accessible, some not.

The first thing that the library does is manage access to much of this environment of information.  All of this environment?  no –think of Google.  Even Google, however, has numerous aspects (Google Books, Google Scholar, Google Patents) which are little known to most users.  Librarians –libraries are primarily a service, not a thing– are critical navigators in this environment.

At great length –with all this! why collect anything locally?  The answer is: here, now, and in person.  When students and faculty are in "inquiry" mode, they want resources: the old amusing saying, "librarians like to search, everyone else likes to find" is true in a way.  There is no finding without searching.  Finding can mean materials online, and materials at hand.  We still live in an  environment of mixed media.  Some people prefer printed resources for a variety of reasons: layout, familiarity, ease of use, portability.  As mentioned before, paper is (all said and done) not a bad storage medium.

So the question: why collect? is answered: to serve students and faculty here, now, and in person.  The question can't be "how many print resources do we have?," but "how good are the print resources we have?"  Who now would bother to build a library to hold all the books available?  Who is really ready –now– to walk into a library with no printed books at all? 

The ease with which one private secondary school in Massachusetts disposed of its print collection is belied by its dependence upon other schools' print collections –resource sharing.  They simply outsourced their print needs to other schools –pleasant news to the budget officer, but with the an effect similar to living on take-out food rather than cooking your own in the kitchen.  It's not a bad thing to do for one meal or another.  But all the time?  What happens in the long run?  What happens when they lose access to critical intellectual resources because they have become unavailable due to contractual disputes between database providers?