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):



When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalinithi

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalinithi.  Foreword by Abraham Verghese.  New York: Random House, 2016. 228 p.

Paul Kalinithi was a neurosurgeon, writer, husband, father. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and died about 24 months later in March 2015. This book became his focus in the last months of his life —a rare, movingly honest, literate, and beautifully written account of facing death and living. OK, I wept when I read this, not because much of it is sad, but because all of it is so beautiful.

Paul swam in the deep end of the pool: in the incredibly exacting work of neurosurgery and neuroscience —a surgery which is meant to heal the body but unavoidably also amends the soul, a person’s very sense of self. This weighty responsibility has to be met by physicians with equal courage, tenacity, knowledge, and stamina —excellence in all things, αρετή in the true Greek sense. When Paul, such a physician, then had to become a patient, the roles shifted to courageous colleagues more than a simple reversal. His oncologist (“Emma”) was uncommonly gifted, and preserved for him an ability to choose his identity, his future, and his life at a time when too often the illness can strip those way. Paul quotes Becket, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” And he does.

In physical, embodied words, this book is beautiful to hold as well –beautifully produced.  The Monotype Bell font renders the text crisply and without weight.  Since the book is about having a body subject to disease and death, its physicality is important.  Reading it on a digital device would be definitely second-best, but good enough if that is the only choice (for those who are very ill or with impaired vision).  The care shown in the production of the volume perfectly corresponds to Paul's drive for excellence and humane expression in all his works.

This book is about facing death and remaining time to be alive —which is everyone’s situation, whether shorter or longer. Paul’s illness allowed him keep this in focus in a way few achieve. He really was remarkable, a force of nature in his prime, blazingly intelligent and impossibly well-read, with a keen sense of humor that only partially reveals itself. His intelligence, education, and experience as a neurosurgeon distilled into wisdom. When I come to that “someday” when life and mortality are both clearly in focus for me, I will reach for rather few books. This will be one of them.