I’m fond of books. I tend to accumulate them, and at this point have between one and two thousand of them on shelves, in piles on the floor, and scattered about. But I do have to admit that they are bulky and old-fashioned. In a conversation yesterday with PubSub CEO Gus Spathis, an avid reader himself, he referred to my attachment to physical books as “quaint nostalgia”.

Gus makes a good point. There are few technologies – and the printed word is, of course, a technological artifact – that have survived so long essentially unchanged. Books are large, they are heavy, and they are made at considerable cost from wood and cotton and soot. The information represented by a book is, by Information Age standards, completely sessile, and the hard drive of my laptop, which is smaller than almost any book, could easily hold the contents of even the most avid collector’s personal library.

“Ah, but the experience!” says the bibliophile. Certainly it is more pleasant to read the pages of a book – the words printed on fine paper, relecting ambient light – than to stare at the computer’s damnable glowing screen. But this is just another matter of technology. Even if we grant that this preference is anything more than just a matter of habit, one can certainly imagine a Universal Book in which the pages have the look and feel of real paper, but which is actually a sophisticated electronic display. In fact, the technology already exists. It is still in its infancy, but we should know by now that any problems whose solution depends merely upon human technical cleverness are certainly soon to be solved.

Another thing that conventional books have going for them is their durability. True, they don’t hold up well in fires or floods, but barring extreme conditions, books can be expected to last a very long time, whereas I’m sure we all know from harsh personal experience just how evanescent the contents of our hard drives can be. But this too, is just a question of technology, and the mobility and fungibility of electronic data make it easy to ensure its duplication. Important information can easily be stored so redundantly that it is effectively beyond the reach of accidental or malicious obliteration.

Well, what about formats? We have seen one after another storage medium – for example, photographic film, eight-track tape, audio cassettes, and floppy disks – come and go, but the printed word has remained constant. It’s a fair objection, but ultimately trivial, as text files are easily migrated from one storage format to another. Eventually we’ll settle on something. If all we can come up with to defend conventional books is that we are afraid digital storage media may change in the future, we are reaching a bit, I think.

But in spite of this compelling brief from the prosecution, I’ll keep my books. They are like wise and silent companions. Each of them is an artifact with an individual history. Many, having once been gifts, are inscribed with notes from the givers – either to me, or to the ancestors, friends, or strangers who sheltered them before I did. Some are signed by their authors. Some naturally fall open to favorite passages. Some are beautiful examples of the bookbinder’s art. They all wait patiently for me to visit. They greet my guests, and invite them to share in my many interests. By their visible presence they remind me of themselves, and the content that it is their sole purpose to share, beckoning in a way that no online listing can.

So, yes, Gus, you are right. Books are, by any reasonable standard, quaint, outdated relics. And if you’re done with yours, I’ll take ’em.


  1. Ah, Malcolm. While I admit to making those points, I too share the same quaint nostalgia for the printed page. The heft and feel of a book is hard to replace. The feel of your fingers moving across the page. The covers, the binding. There is so much to love….

    It will be hard to see them go, but then watching vinyl fade away was hard as well….

    Posted January 22, 2006 at 12:34 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Gus, and thanks for dropping by.

    I agree that their days are numbered, but then again, so are mine. I’m in no special hurry as far as this particular bit of “progress” is concerned.

    Posted January 22, 2006 at 12:59 am | Permalink
  3. eugene says

    Malcolm, one person that I knew before when I was in school has been doing something called “physical computing”, “tangible media” http://entity.eng.yale.edu/nat/. Writing can be described as the oldest form of tangible media. The information is stored in a way that our sensory organs can directly perceived information itself without assistance from machines. At this point, we are not different from stonehenge Celts who tried to mark down equinoxes by erection of stones to mark the critical information in life. Information has to be able to be felt, touched by our bare eyes, ears and hands.

    Also I think human emotion and perception react more toward physical media. Suppose Moses brought down a PDA containing ten commandments from Mount Sinai and pressed the erase button when he saw Israelis orgied … It is not as dramatic as he carried the two heavy stone plates down the road and smashed it to pieces to my sense. The latter carries more poetic context than pure information.

    Posted January 22, 2006 at 12:43 pm | Permalink
  4. the one eyed man says

    You could make the case that what was arguably the greatest invention in the history of mankind — movable type — is now obsolete, and its obsolescence was hardly noted. When is the last time you saw a typewriter?

    Posted January 22, 2006 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    You are right; I imagine the only places left that use movable type are tiny boutique printers and places not in the developed world. I still have my Smith-Corona electric, but I’m not even sure where it is.

    Interesting comment, Eugene, and I do agree that the image of Moses with a Blackberry lacks gravitas. But perhaps human perception and emotion react more to the physical media simply because they haven’t been sufficiently trained otherwise yet?

    Posted January 23, 2006 at 12:30 am | Permalink
  6. eugene says

    Our sensory organs are evolved to deal with analog information. To convert the digital information back to analog media, we need all kind of machinery. If the layer in socio-economic to create and maintain those machinery is disrupted, all the digital content will be lost definitely and very hard to reconsturct from raw bits. On the other hand, stonehenge and pyramids marks down important events in life in physical media and eudures much longer survival and we can even figure out what their purpose is even we can’t speak their languages! We have to admit that currently all machinery to convert information back and forth between analog and digital media is cumbersome. Pen a paper still the best simple media to take down one’s thought and unbeliveable affordable in comparison with machinery. If one can’t afford to access a computer monitor, he/she bascially has lost his/her power to exercise one’s right of freedom of speech on line.

    Tangible media people try to find another way to define user interface to machines. But they still need to deal with machines and susceptible to extinction pressure as digital media itself. I guess unless we evolve to have an sensory organ to perceive/convert/decode/transmit digital information, the digitized media will be very short-lived artifacts in time.

    Posted January 23, 2006 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi Eugene,

    What you say is true – digital Pyramids would be rather less imposing – but to communicate effectively at anything more than the most intimate scale, even by analog media such as the written word, already requires that we use prosthetic enhancements in the form of printing presses, radio transmitters, and so forth; mere pen and paper won’t do much good in their absence. Civilization is already “in too deep” with its commitment to its machinery, so perhaps the fact that the machinery now must convert bytecode to text is a relatively unimportant detail.

    Posted January 23, 2006 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  8. eugene says

    I think we ignore another mechanism that information was passed down from generations. Most information is passed down through rituals. I guess any anthropologists agree with this. We in fact are growing up through different rituals to acquire and pass down information from one generation to next.
    Before writing was invented, human being passed down information through rituals and myths. Of course they are still short-lived. A tribes loses its information after being conquered by another tribe and changes the stories and myths to the conqueror’s rituals and myths.

    Well, information is ephemeral. Only the big black monolith stores all bits.

    Posted January 23, 2006 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Quite so, Eugene, but the ritualistic channel will persist, and is off to the side of the issues we are considering here.

    Posted January 23, 2006 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

One Trackback

  1. […] As I’ve mentioned before, I am fond of books, and have a hard time passing an outdoor bookseller’s table (and here in Gotham they are everywhere) without picking something up. As a result they are all over my house; I simply don’t have enough bookshelves to contain them all, so they tend to accumulate in piles in less-trafficked areas. Every so often I make some attempt at reorganizing them, and the process takes much, much longer than it ought, because exhuming them from their dusty desuetude is like meeting old friends, and I wind up just sitting on the floor reading. […]

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