Books are like sharks

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

This is the third thing that I wanted to pull out from Neil Gaiman’s lecture at The Reading Agency.

Douglas Adams is right. Books—physical books—have been around for centuries. They’ve spent a long time being adapted to all the things we need them to. I’ve encountered the current limitations of ebooks lately.

I’ve mentioned Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation on this blog a few times. I read it on my Kindle and iPhone. It’s a great book, but reading the foot notes was often a pain. It was a lot of moving back and forth. It got to the point that I ignored most of the footnotes, whereas if I’d been reading the physical book, I would have just glanced down at the bottom of the page.

I’ve also been reading Run Less, Run Faster recently. Determining a training plan means moving across several tables that contain racing plans, cross training suggested and suggested paces. I found this virtually impossible to do in an ebook. So much so, that I ordered the a physical copy of the book.

I also don’t think these are insurmountable issues. The problem right now is that many books are written with a physical book in mind. As people start writing and designing books knowing they are likely to be read across a range of devices, things like footnotes and tables will be presented differently and in a more usable way.

What I do think is interesting is that when I’m reading fiction, it doesn’t really matter what format I’m reading it in. Well, unless it’s something like Infinite Jest or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which are experimenting with the conventions of physical books). But most works of fiction have made the transition to ebooks without any issues. Again, Neil Gaiman has something to say about this.

We need libraries. We need books. We need literate citizens. I do not care – I do not believe it matters – whether these books are paper, or digital, whether you are reading on a scroll or scrolling on a screen. The content is the important thing. But a book is also the content, and that’s important.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

Tales. Stories. They’ve outlasted the format they were written in. Whether in song, on papyrus, on potsherds, on scrolls, or in a book. Stories pass easily from one format to another. Burroughs said language is a virus for outer space, but I think it’s stories that are viral, inhabiting whatever format is available at the time.

One final thought. If books are like sharks, then stories are like dogs. They’ve adapted and evolved along with us. They are both a big part of what make us human. Our technology advances—stone carvings, agriculture, paper, cities, the printing press, the Internet and ebooks—but dogs and stories have stayed with us and easily adapted to those changes.