Grasping for Immortality
As humans we seek to outlast ourselves.
Procreation allows us to pass on the information in our DNA beyond our own lives.
Beyond genetic information, language and oral traditions meant our stories could live past a single generation.
But the best method we have developed to preserve ideas over time has been to publish, in well constructed books, and distribute those books as widely as possible to institutions that exist to protect them over time — libraries.
It’s been the best chance you have that your words will live long past you.
The Mortality of The Digital
Real books don’t live forever, obviously — cheaply made materials, improper care, lost libraries and other hazards intervene.
But physical books are actual physical objects that you can own. With digital books, you sacrifice that on the altar of convenience.
Have you ever read the Kindle Terms of Service?
When you buy a book in a bookstore, you don’t have to agree to onerous terms — the laws dictating your use were fundamentally decided years ago by the government, not some recently drafted terms of service by corporate attorneys.
Copyright provides restrictions, but also guarantees you certain rights — Fair Use rights. Want to sell the book again? No problem. Rip out some pages? They’re yours! Photocopy a page? Nobody is stopping you.
Want to pass on those books to your children? You can.
Try those with an electronic book. You will fail.
The Man Behind the Curtain
When I was a child my father read to me L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books. Some of those books are from his childhood. If I have children, I’d like to read those same books to them.
Books as keepsakes are fundamentally incompatible with the digital world we are entering.
We know this is true, but we don’t fully know what it will mean, what the experience and reality will be for us.
Information vs. Its Container Object
Librarians have a formal ontology to explain what we mean by a “book.”
FRBR divides the bibliographic world into four basic concepts.
Three are abstract — work, expression, and manifestation, the fourth is concrete — item.
As readers what we hold in our hands are items — the physical reality of the platonic conceptual entities that are artistic works.
With digital books, everything becomes muddled.
The separation between abstract entities governed by intellectual property rights and physical entities governed through actual property rights disappears. We no longer own a physical item that embodies intellectual content, we have a license to manifest something ephemeral into physical reality on our screen - but only in certain contexts, on certain devices, under certain conditions.
These rules are written by publishers and technology companies rather than based on something as idealistic as
To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries
— US Constitution, http://www.house.gov/house/Constitution/Constitution.html
Article I Section 8 is the basis of all copyright law, but it was written long before media became a an industry, before the cost of copying information approached zero, long before corporate entities would take hold of the keys to our cultural artifacts’ future.
And in return for this drastic reinterpretation of what it means to own a book, we get access to typographically awful materials on low resolution screens.
Books are an amazing invention. They have lasted us for centuries, they are culturally significant objects with finely tuned notions of design and readability.
Ebooks today are digital turds.
Readability, Typography, and a Lack of Attention to Detail
If you care about the aesthetics of book design, you can spend a few minutes with a Kindle or other modern digital book and be disgusted.
Without control of these two factors you will certainly have rivers, ie, channels of whitespace running down the paragraphs since whitespace, or more accurately, word spacing, is what is used to justify the lines. Unfortunately, font size can be controlled by the user on the Kindle, so whenever you decide to change the font size, the word spacing changes, and if you don’t have a hyphenation library (which it appears Kindle doesn’t have on board yet) and you get a diluvian horrorshow:
— A typographic critique of the Kindle
As books make the leap from cellulose and ink to electronic pages, some editors worry that too much is being lost in translation. Typography, layout, illustrations and carefully thought-out covers are all being reduced to a uniform, black-on-gray template that looks the same whether you’re reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or the Federalist Papers.
— Why E-Books Look So Ugly
How can so little care be given to the presentation of text on a[n electronic] page? Do publishers care, or even realize, what is happening to the texts they lovingly commission, copy-edit, and proof-read, when they enter the electronic domain?
— Typography is about reading – and so are ebooks
Kindle typography goes craptacular
Justified text without hyphenation or a reasonable line-breaking algorithm is a way of expressing to readers you don’t care about how text is presented by smashing them over the head with rivers of white space, amongst other crimes against the written word that the Kindle and other ereaders commit.
The Cost of Caring
Don’t bother complaining: that ebook with typos, low resolution figures that are impossible to see and improperly placed in the flow of text, and unconscionable line breaks may be downloadable in less than 60 seconds, but not returnable, and will probably not be corrected anytime soon.
In contrast to the careful professional design that publishers bring to many of their books, many electronic books look like they were put together by low wage labor whose native language is not that of the book they are working on, without any care for detail. (Because many are.)
After our society spent hundred of years perfecting the typography and design of the written word, publishers have taken their responsibility of the presentation of text and now regularly decide, fuck it, let’s outsource some low wage Asian contractors to convert this sloppily scanned book for the digital age.
Do the CEOs of the big publishers care about the typography of their physical books, let alone digital ones?
(Do they even read them?)
Does Jeff Bezos lose sleep over the the inability to hyphenate the justified text on Amazon’s devices?
Does he notice this when he’s taking a bath with his Kindle?
I’m conflating the failures of publishers (poor document creation and editing) with those of software and device manufacturers (poor rendering, typographical choices and ignoring decades of typesetting algorithm development.)
But will there even be a distinction between those entities in the future?
The Most Perfect Cassette
We are reaping what we have sown with a steadily more illiterate society immersed in trivia. A book? It’s the perfect cassette. You can put it down and pick it up, start it in the middle, reread it. But you have to create sound and scene in your own mind with a book.
— Harlan Ellison
Amazon cares about books as commodities to sell, and ereaders as commodities to sell even more books, not books as the most perfect cassette, or books as the holder of knowledge across time.
It’s silly to expect more from them. They’re a company that makes money, and they’re pretty good at that.
The Freedom from Things
The point is: it doesn’t matter.
Just as we slowly gave up the physicality of CD’s for the ease of MP3 downloads and the warm glow of iTunes, we will begin to move away from physical books as objects.
You don’t hear people complaining about how MP3s are of lower quality due to compression vs. compact discs, do you? (It is worse — but nobody can tell the difference on cheap headphones.)
I don’t want to keep buying wooden and steel shelves to house books made of trees and house them and heat them and preserve them for decades.
I have other things to do. I have a life to live beyond shepherding a personal collection of ephemera masquerading as timeless artifacts.
Don’t I? Don’t we all?
I’m out of bookshelves. I’m out of space.
I spent years studying library and information science, but I’m finding it harder and harder to recognize myself as someone who will be custodian of information embodied in paper objects for the rest of my life.
Ebooks are about facing death.
An admission of and acceptance of mortality and the impermanence of all things.
An ebook will almost certainly not outlast me.
It will not stand the test of time. When I die, my non-transferrable, revocable at any time licenses to content will die with me. There will be no estate sale full of the electronic books I collected over decades. There will only be a database entry on a faraway server, signifying nothing.
I’m trying to be OK with that.
But it’s important to remember The Cloud is not your friend.
This has been part one of a review of the 2011 Kindle.