Monday, February 23, 2009

The End of Books?

An NPR story this morning caught my attention. The basic focus of the story is that some college campuses are switching away from textbooks and going to on-line versions instead. What? No books?

Well, that got me to pondering. Would the end of books be a good thing or not?

I remember watching the movie “Fahrenheit 451” with great fascination. Based on Ray Bradbury’s dystopic view of the future, the movie envisions a hyper-controlled world where books are outlawed. The temperature of the title refers to the degree at which books burn. People are encouraged to seek pleasure in various hedonistic ways. But they may NOT read. One of the great twists of the movie is that the firemen have the job of seeking out and burning books. Much of the plot turns on the attempts of characters to find and keep books. The movie ends with a refugee colony of people who have memorized books. The final scene is of them walking around, quietly murmuring their memorized book.

So, of course, a book is not specifically the paper on which it is printed. For Christmas, my husband got a
Kindle for me. While he was intrigued with the technologic possibilities, I read far more than he does. So he suggested getting ME one. At first, I demurred, but now that I have a Kindle, I find it a great new way to read. I can read the Kindle in places where books are not quite so handy—for example, while riding an exer-cycle.

The words on the Kindle screen are the same as the words on a printed page. The advantage, other than its shape and the instant access to books (which you “simply” download using cell-phone technology) is that you can look up word definitions or footnotes simply by clicking on the appropriate place.

But, back to college and whether or not we will see an end to books. Certainly, one of the advantages of going to on-line books is cost. Textbooks are outrageously priced. And, sadly, professors are somewhat like physicians. We order these textbooks and have no idea what they cost—just as physicians order tests or prescriptions with no idea of cost. The cost of a single textbook can be $200. Or maybe even more. The textbook that I am currently using in class (which was pre-selected by a faculty committee) costs about $50. I am aware of some college professors who write their own textbook and then require that text for class. Hmmm—can that be ethical? I don’t know if they get royalties or not.

So, how do on-line textbooks fit into this consideration? An on-line textbook is usually about half the cost of a paper one. Of course, I do wonder if you can sell the on-line version; many of my students are using second hand textbooks which naturally cost less than new ones.

Apparently, another major motivator for switching to on-line textbooks, other than cost, is that so much of what a student has access to in our present wired environment is on-line. Music, personal communication, calendars, information gathering, photo albums. . . .All on-line. So why not textbooks?

There is another consideration that causes me to pause in this mad dash to on-line textbooks. I recently read an analysis of how our wired environment is changing the way we think. The author pointed out that our tolerance for long discourse has plummeted. We simply don’t take the time to read long passages. He hypothesized that reading on-line combined with the instant availability of references that are cross-linked has changed how our brains are wired. We begin to read a piece on-line; we encounter an unknown term or a hyper-link. CLICK. We zoom away from our immediate reading task. And click again. . .and again. Next thing we know—we are far from our original assignment.

The end of books? Not for me. Oh, sure—I will keep reading my Kindle. I will surf the Internet, clicking further and further from my original place. But I will also finger the paper of a new book. I will look at the font, and admire it—even turn to the back to see if there is an explanation of the font. I will line books up on the shelves in my house. And, I will keep the 451 F firemen at bay.


Anvilcloud said...

I am taking an online course right now, but I simply must print the material because reading from the screen doesn't do it for me, not for serious reading reading of any length. Is printing material pretty similar to reading a published book? I think so, so the book is not nearly dead. Perhaps if a Kindle mimics a book, it might work for me, but since almost all of my reading is done for free through the library, I don't think it would work very well for me. It's intriguing though.

Liza Lee Miller said...

I can hardly wait for mine to arrive. I'm sure that I will still read paper books from time to time but I am greatly looking forward to reading electronically starting on Wednesday!

Jayne said...

Mine will be here today!!!! Hubby's gift for my birthday Sunday. I can't wait! I've wanted one since they first came out. I think it will make me read so much more to be able to have the convenience and flexibility to have it anywhere.

NCmountainwoman said...

I don't have a Kindle, but I've used my friend's and I think I would like it. I was surprised at how user-friendly it is.

That said, I am a real book lover. I love the feel of a book in my hands and the wonderful look of books lined neatly on shelves. I may enjoy the advanced technology, but I will always have my books.

Dog_geek said...

The Kindle sounds neat, but I don't think I could ever get rid of printed books. In my work, most journal articles are available on-line and have been for years, but I find I still need to print them out and read them - I have a much harder time reading them on a computer screen.

Susan Gets Native said...

This makes me sad.
Sure, I spend more than half of my waking life (it seems) online. But I love the feel and smell of a real, live book in my hands. And this instant gratification that we are all sucked into doesn't seem healthy as a whole. I love waiting for the "next book in the series" to come out, or browsing the library or bookstore for a great find.
No 451 degrees for this gal!

Ruth said...

I like to hold books, underline books and online reading of books has not worked for me. But I think the textbook idea is good. My daughter's nursing texts were more expensive than her tuition. I never buy medical books anymore because the most current information is online. The hospital has a web-based program called "Up to Date" which is better than 1000 new textbooks.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

I cannot imagine books ever being completely replaced electronically, although I understand the complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary is only available electronically. For information the computer works fine but we real books for many other reasons that garnering information.

Reading is an aesthetic experience of physically encountering a book. I love the way a new book smells, sounds when you first open the pages. A book is left with stains and bent corners and marking that bring back memories on re readings. Books you can underline and write comments in the margins (Yes, I have been know to do such things). Years later these personalized marks may help in finding special passages only partially remembered. They may also help you to skim the book to recover the information.

There are lots of ways of reading a book. We do not always read it in a linear fashion. We read it forward and often go back a reread passages. We may even read the indices. I often go to the back and look over the index that shows how often certain words are used in the book. I have read books by just reading the chapter titles and the opening and closing paragraphs in each chapter and gotten what a wanted out of the book. College students need this skill in order to master such a large volume of reading. In a book there is also the relationship between pictures, diagrams and text that need to be at hand to compliment each other. This may require going forward or back a page or two.

I have a remarkable book on electrical motor repair which is like two books in one. When you open it from the middle the text is on one side and the technical diagrams are on the other. As you go through the book this relationship is always maintained. It is hard to imagine this being reproduced on a flat screen.

I am sure others can think of imaginative ways a book is used.

Let us not forget that a book can be a gift of love and affection, with a personal note written on the title page, to be held as a lifetime memento. Load that into a computer!

RuthieJ said...

I'm with Susan....I would never want to give up holding a book in my hand and reading it. Years ago (in high school) I had a summer job at the school and one of the jobs I got to do was help unpack new library books. I loved opening and holding those new books and even the smell. So for me, it's not just reading the words, but an entire sensory experience. I'm pretty sure there will never be a Kindle in my future.

JeanMac said...

I'm rather embarrassed to say, I had never heard of a Kindle til your post. Sounds terrific. We have many books and I will always enjoy holding one.Thanks for the good points and info.

Lynne said...

I have really mixed feelings too. I think it would be very convenient but the feel of a book...

I'll be getting one for Art for his birthday.