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 Does Library Privacy Matter?

In 2009 Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, was asked whether users should be willing to share information with Google as if it were a trusted friend –and Schmidt famously replied, "If you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."  The Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that this is very close to the famous phrase, "if you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to worry about" –beloved of those who are seeking greater law-enforcement powers or processes.  It implies that people who seek to preserve privacy are doing something to worry about, not those who place them under surveillance.

That was then.  In the aftermath of Edward Snowdon's revelations –in particular those that detail the very cozy relationships between the NSA, major firms such as Google, and telecommunications giants such as Verizon– privacy has returned as a positive right, not merely a historical left-over.

A library is probably one of the last places where one can pursue interests and information unobserved.  A mere few years ago this was a sign of obsolescence rather than currency.  Libraries made data surveillance difficult because they weren't high-tech enough.  That has changed too.  Suddenly that obsolescence has become a feature (as in, "that's not a bug, it's a feature!").

Why does it matter?  If there is one thing that Pew survey after Pew survey has found –as well as OCLC and other survey producers– that thing surely has to be: people feel positive about the library "brand."  They want a vibrant, useful library in their academic, residential, or business community whether or not they intend to use it (or have used it).  A library is a "good thing."  People trust libraries, and trust librarians.

Trust is a huge asset, not to be thrown away or discounted casually.  Just ask General Motors, or for that matter, the NSA itself.

In general, libraries do a fairly accurate job of maintaining trust, but could do a lot better.  Circulation records of tangible items are not easily available for public discovery, depending on the laws of state and local jurisdictions.  (Connecticut has alarming little provision of the privacy of library records, for example.)  In any case, circulation records are hard to locate digitally because they are held in highly particular formats in integrated library systems, formats that don't translate readily to standards and common practices outside.  That's wasn't a bug, and now it's a feature.

Library use of external databases is a different matter.  In many systems, all traffic routed through a library proxy will be seen by parties outside the proxy as coming from one machine, one Internet Protocol address.  Separating the sessions would be far harder.  That doesn't cover all library database transactions, however, or even a large portion of them.  Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon —in French, GAFA— can monitor a great deal of transactions on library workstations unless those are properly protected.

Eric Hellman has written persuasively (to my mind, at least) about the Library Digital Privacy Pledge here and here.  It's an interesting concept, whether or not the pledge ever receives wide adoption.  Eric's primary focus at this point is to get libraries to use the secure HTTP protocol –HTTPS– as much as possible.  Library digital privacy has, of course, many other aspects that will need to be addressed.

Recently the small New Hampshire public library in West Lebanon (near Dartmouth College) was for the most part bullied away from using the secure browser system TOR by the NSA –although now they have recovered their courage.  TOR has been targeted in the past as the province of drug-dealers, pedophiles, and terrorists –what lovely company– and who would want to be associated with them?  The topic invariably circles back to law enforcement: if you haven't done anything wrong, you've got nothing to hide (even when grammatically challenged!).

In the library no one ever used to track your reading, and no one should now: 3rd article of the American Library Association's Code of Ethics.  Trust is easily lost.  Privacy is easily lost.  A library is a great place to think, write, and read privately.  It's not a bug, it's a feature.


Is Individual Learning Really Outmoded?

This post refers back to the post (below) of May 14, 2010, and the post of August 25.

In those posts, I mentioned Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia) and his article Individual Knowledge and the Internet.  Sanger analyzes three common strands of current thought about education and the Internet.  "First is the idea that the instant availability of knowledge online makes memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary."  The second strand claims that "individual learning is outmoded, and that "social learning" is the cornerstone of "Learning 2.0"  (The third two strand will be examined more fully in a later post.)

Why do I return to an article published a year ago?  I believe that Sanger is on to something: a superficial, misleading articulation among certain educationists that learning has become fundamentally different with the advent of social web tools.  On the contrary, Sanger see such tools as fancy tools, but only as tool towards a very similar end: the content and method of liberal learning which remains to be done, no matter what the technological environment.  I agree with him.  I think that Sanger's argument is worth continuing, if only because, as the bloom seems to be coming off some Web tools, this is a teachable moment to ask, what does it mean to be truly educated?

But back to Sanger's critique of a second strand of thinking about learning adn the Internet: that individual patterns of learning are outmoded, and the new pattern of learning (thoroughly invested in and enabled by Web social tools) is collaborate, social group learning.  Just as some educationists' first claim that the Web has made memorization unnecessary (by in part caricaturing all remembered content as mere rote, unreflective memorization), so this strand caricatures individual learning as –well, individualistic— as lonely, uncreative, and private to the point of solipsism.

Now group learning and social learning using social web interaction –wikis, online conversations, online fora of all sorts, can certainly be valuable.  They can also have problems, and carry costs and benefits which a wise teacher can choose to use as time, attention, and the situation suggest.  This is to say that these tools are exactly that: tools; that other tools (reading a book, an article, summarizing a paper, writing a poem, translating a passage, or other traditional activities) might also be useful, or not, as the situation suggests.

John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler, however, go much further (in the article cited above).  The go on to claim that "collaborative learning" is "the core model of pedagogy," and that of course digital platforms alone enable this.  Asking what is meant by social learning, they claim:

Perhaps the simplest way to explain this concept is to note that social learning is based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions. The focus is not so much on what we are learning but on how we are learning.

In other words, social learning shifts focus from content to process, which "stands in sharp contrast to the traditional Cartesian view of knowledge and learning."  This view (according to Brown and Adler) views knowledge as a kind of "substance" and that pedagogy –the art of teaching– concerns how to transfer this substance from those who know to those who do not yet know, i.e. from teachers to students.  This "transfer" contrasts with the "constructed" knowledge students arrive at collaboratively.  How "substance" differs from "construction" is left unsaid.  As Sanger points out:

One could just as easily, and with just as much justification, assert that what is constructed in social learning is a "substance" that is socially shared. One can simply say instead that Cartesian learning involves the teacher causing the student to believe something that is true, by communicating the true thought.

In any case, Brown's and Adler's understanding of "Cartesian" (by extension, of Descartes) is laughably superficial.  "Substance" is not a prominent term for Descartes, who though that each person's mind is a substance, not knowledge itself.  Brown and Adler have simply adopted an idea from widely repeated (and vague) academic discourse that knowledge is a social construction (certainly a problematic idea –just ask a physicist).  Knowledge as a kind of "substance" is much more Aristotelian or even Thomist, but those thinkers are too intimidating to serve well as a kind of fashionable foil for social constructivists.  Thankfully Brown and Adler did not drag Kant into this.

The distinction boils down to learning with or without the presence and support of peers.  Certainly some people need peers in order to maximize their abilities to learn; others need solitude.  Isn't this obvious?   The view that social learning is therefore superior is easy to claim, but very difficult to verify in any meaningful manner, because "social learning" simply lacks the definitional heft to test rigorously.  The several tools which Brown and Adler present as examples of social learning are interesting, but cannot bear the entire weight of presenting an alternative to a straw-man "Cartesian." 

Ultimately, you have to do your own reading, no matter how the Decameron or the Divine Comedy come to you (to think of two classic texts with extensive online tools).  You may post your thoughts in essays on a blog or wiki (as I am doing), but the act of writing is still solitary, and needs practice for mastery.  (I certainly don't claim the latter!)  Discussion in any forum, whether face-to-face or online, is a great thing –but I agree with Sanger that a true scholar needs the ability to think independently.  A scholar is not automatically a member of a herd.  You might get a lot of help from peers to learn maths, science, management, economics, or a host of subjects –but if you don't master the material yourself, then you haven't learned it.  If you can't do the problems yourself, you haven't mastered them.  Your peers will not be omnipresent, whether in an examination, or on the job.

I agree with Sanger that those four activities –reading, writing, critical thinking, and calculating– are crucial to liberal education.  A person who can't do them can't really be called educated.  Social learning is an important supplement to, but not a replacement of, individual learning.

Why does this matter to me as a librarian?  I am involved with planning a library renovation –I am making sure that there will be both group and individual spaces for study.  Part of liberal learning includes memorization, reading, writing, independent judgement, calculating –exactly the kind of independently responsible learning so much in demand by knowledge workers today and in the future.  What goes on in a library is individual learning, supplemented by group learning.  Individual knowledge is still necessary in the internet age, and "social learning" without individual knowledge is insufficient to the tasks of reading, writing, critical judgement, and calculating.  At the end of the day, you have to wipe your own nose, say your own prayers, reading your own texts, and work your own problems.

Is Reading Really Done For?

Two recent discussions –in very different venues– take an interesting look at the role of reading, individual knowledge, and disciplined reflection in the Internet Age.

The first author is Larry Sanger, one of the founders of Wikipedia, who has gone on to found a renowed public-interest wiki and the directory of educational videos online,  With a Ph.D. in Philosophy (Theory of Knowledge), Sanger is hardly one to down-play the role of the Internet in civil society, or to be accused of being a Luddite by the rhetorically inclined.

Sanger's article in Educause Review, Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age, can be found here (in .pdf here)

Sanger discusses in some detail the importance of individual knowledge, rooted in (but not exclusively):

  • memorization –how can you really know something that you don't remember?
  • individual learning (as differentiated from social knowledge learned in groups); and
  • books –complex, deep strands of thinking that require absorption and uninterrupted attention.

The second author is Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, a long-standing, mainstream Christian publishing empire famous for devotional literature and Bibles.  Far from special pleading from a print publisher, Thomas Nelson is in fact a leader in electronic publishing, and Hyatt has led the transformation.

Hyatt writes in defense of books, of the activity of reading as a way of viewing the world –you can read his blog-post here.

Beyond (or because of) his broad and deep commitment to digital publishing, Hyatt values serious readers' "ability to follow extended arguments and enroll their imagination in
the reading experience."  What Hyatt regards in peril is the ability to engage in extended conversation with its potential for transformative exchange, replaced instead by a media-driven amusement that  "will become the ultimate value against which everything else is measured."

Libraries, like Universities (and especially University Libraries!) have a cultural agenda: that the examined life is definitely worth living, that such examination requires reflection, conversation, and an openness to the experiences of people very different from contemporaries –people of the past.  Amusement, group knowledge socially constructed in networks heedless of group and individual memory –these things are no replacement for the examined life.  In fact, Plato might suggest that they are merely the shadows upon the wall of the cave in which most people live their lives, unaware of the light and the source of the light outside the cave.

Do I cavill with a straw man?  I hope so, but fear that I do not do so.  As contemporary Americans we pride ourselves on a world-wide cultural now built especially upon science, medicine, and technology –but we also prefer the disconnected amusement the some even disparage the "old" knowledge based upon remembering, individual reflection, and reading. 

Sanger and Hyatt, from very different perspectives and social and business locations, converge on similar points.  That convergence is worth pondering.

The E-Books Are Coming (… or not)

book sellers, librarians, and readers should all be panting for e-books and
e-book readers, according to the breathless press reports surrounding the
introduction of Apple's new iPad by Steve Jobs on January 25. But are they?

that e-books will completely replace printed books (“p-books” or “tree-books”)
have been around since the advent of the computer, often in tandem with
predictions about the “paperless office.” (Have you seen one lately?) To be
sure, authors, publishers, book distributors, and librarians have been
preparing for e-books –already Sacred Heart University Library has leased
access to approximately 50,000 available e-books and tens of thousands of

moment of truth, however, has not yet arrived. The reasons vary.

  • The e-book market right now
    is device-driven. Everyone who sells an e-book is also interested in selling
    –or supporting– a device, and the devices aren't compatible. You can play a CD
    or an mp3 music download on many different players. Not so with Kindles, Nooks,
    E-Readers, etc. To buy a Kindle is to decide to buy e-books from Amazon, and
    only Amazon. Book retailers won't push e-readers until there's more in it for

  • The devices aren't cheap.
    The major market for Kindles right now isn't young people, but people aged
    35-50. Why? They (sometimes) have the several hundred dollars available for an
    experimental purchase. Some of these people travel often, and a Kindle has real
    benefits for a business traveler. E-book readers so far –the iPad will probably
    be an exception– are largely single-use devices. How many college students
    want to pack a Kindle along with a laptop, books, phone, iPod, and what-else on
    campus every day?

  • The devices have often been
    hard to read for a long time. Kindle users say they get used to it. No one
    knows about the iPad yet. A e-book reader is rarely a love-at-first-sight

  • Publishers are extremely
    nervous about piracy and uncompensated file sharing. Ironically, the most
    egregious piracy comes in the form of ordinary scans of printed materials into
    .pdf files which are then easily readable almost everywhere on the Web. Who
    else could read a pirated Kindle book in Mobipocket format? Even the .epub or
    OEPBS (Open Ebook Publication Structure) which can be read via Firefox is
    unfamiliar to most people. Publishers' squeamishness about legal copies –their
    core business, after all– has contributed to reluctant embrace of e-books.

Apple can penetrated the technologically all-important youth market and the
hard-pressed and captive textbook market (markets which overlap on a college
campus) has yet to be seen. What will be the Cool factor of an iPad?


which leads to the question: so how do people really interact with e-books and