Google eBooks: Will Printed Books Become a Quaint Memory?

Google Books (2).jpg

Google announced yesterday that you can now access three million books from 4,000 publishers from their ebookstore. These eBooks can be read on an android, iPhone, iPad, iTouch, Nook and Sony bookreaders and - almost forgot - a computer.

With this announcement, I wanted to share with ScienceBlogs readers an Op-Ed I published this Spring that discusses what we might be missing if electronic media were to replace printed media. What do you think? Please share your thoughts.

Electronic books, like it or not, may eventually replace books in print. Borders launched an e-book store with more than 1.5 million titles, competing with Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple to tap into the vast popularity of e-readers like Kindle and Nook.

As readers of electronic media, are we missing something essential provided only by the printed book?

For the past ten years or so, I have read almost exclusively online. Electronic media have incredible power, speed and flexibility. Possibilities for connecting ideas are seemingly endless. Blogger Mark Pesce wrote that we are "carried along by the centrifugal force of the links" -- each hyperlink is pregnant with meaning, and we can't wait to see how it develops and matures, spawning more hyperlinks that can open more vistas.

Recently, however, I was reminded of the allure of books with the arrival of a package in the mail, a volume sent to me as a gift. It was no ordinary book; it was the kind many would describe as an art book, oversized, heavy, with stunning photography and aesthetic typeface to complement the images.

The experience of leafing through its pages was a delight of the senses -- visual, tactile, and with aromas evoking a fine museum. The author, editor and publisher of this just-published book clearly paid homage to the age-old process of printing and engraving, black and white photography, binding, cotton bond paper -- each a product of someone with a passion for their particular trade, all associated with a bygone era.

We are surrounded by books, their potential unrealized. My home and office has hundreds of books on display, most of which have remained untouched for years. There are exceptions; some of them are like old friends that call out for periodic visits. One of my favorites is Webster's New World Dictionary, College Edition, given to me by my parents when I was 13, its tattered, yellowed pages now reminding me of long hours preparing for the SAT's. The other is a first edition of Bertrand Russell's "The Scientific Outlook," published in 1931 (original price $3); leafing through its pages releases aromas of mahogany bookcases and memories of when I was a young science student.

Books, as well as other forms of printed media, can stimulate more than our senses. The context of an essay, short story or poem or the placing of an individual book, journal or magazine within a library's collection can give us unique insights. How many of our children will experience the joy -- and, yes, frustration -- of exploring the stacks of a library guided by the Dewey decimal system? Such journeys can lead to personal discoveries that may not be possible using online search engines.

Remember before the internet? We explored the library stacks, our imaginations sometimes piqued by books seemingly unrelated to the one we originally set out to find. Yes, internet searching can lead us to unexpected sources, but it's not the same. New, richer insights became possible in those stacks, thanks to a distinct perspective that publishers, editors and librarians bring to the context and relevance of an author's work within a collection. Our individual senses and curiosity were the "search engine," free from the confines of a computer algorithm.

Books and other printed media don't bring the instant access, breadth and depth of online connectivity and the option to dip into a universe of information, guided by those virtual Sherpas with names like Google, Yahoo and or Bing.

But while we should revel in the benefits and power of eMedia, let's each take a breath this summer and take in the beauty that can only be offered by a good book.

A version of this article was published originally in the printed Sunday edition of The Star Ledger.

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I think there are strengths and weaknesses to both forms. Where I think we'll really start to miss out is "accidental" discoveries. There have been lots of times where I've been at a bookstore and a book I've never heard of happens to catch my eye at random and turned out to be pretty good; in the modern era of search engines we do a search for the author or title we want and never see anything else. Similarly I used to look at an article in the encyclopedia, then get sidetracked by a completely unrelated article on the same page. Hopefully print and electronic media can coexist for a while longer so we can have the best of both worlds.

Agreed! My mentor in graduate school taught me to pay to attention to the article before and the article after the one I sought out - often I would learn more from that compared to the original article. Context is incredibly important, and online search engines can only approximate what might capture our imaginations. Thanks for your comment.

I don't think books are going away yet. They are almost perfect: small size, work every time you open them, no virus updates, no network disconnects or power outages. You will appreciate them when your reading light comes from a camp fire.

Anyway, Google may have a gazillion titles, but how many of them are in some other language than English?

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 07 Dec 2010 #permalink

According to Google:

What about books in other languages?

We want Google Books to include books from all the world's languages and cultures. All of the prestigious libraries we're working with have books in many different languages, and we aren't limiting our scanning to English-language books. We are currently working with publishers from many countries around the world to include their books in the Partner Program, and there are already many foreign-language versions of Google Books. See, for example,

First, one must appreciate that books fall into several categories, and for some of these categories the issue is settled - they were replaced by the Internet long ago. Particularly this is true for reference books. It's odd that what you mention as the strengths of printed books and libraries - searching and random browsing - are exactly what I would call weaknesses. These are aspects where the Internet excels.

But it's true that old habits are hard to break. Every now and then, I want to look up a word meaning or a geographical fact, and I catch myself reaching for a book. Must remember that the computer is only a few steps away and has much more to offer, more recent and more complete. There is no longer any purpose in keeping a home reference library, except to have it on display. Google and Wikipedia have replaced this bookish function entirely.

And the idea of driving across town to a public library? To find books arranged in linear order by Dewey Decimal Number. And many of which may not be there at all, having been checked out. It no longer makes sense. I have not been to a library in years. Indeed the libraries, realizing that their patronage has evolved, have spread out to provide more specialized material, as well as public access terminals. Nowadays libraries mostly provide public meeting areas for clubs, and reading hours for small children. Microfilm archives, interlibrary loan for rare items.

There are other functions that books serve. E-books are used mostly for casual reading, typically fiction, where a book will be read once and then put aside. Basically they provide television in text-only form, and are a good medium for this.

Magazines? Interesting possibility. We may soon have the option of receiving our monthly issue of National Geographic on disc.

Newspapers? For some reason we still get paper newspapers. I don't know why. Most of our friends do not.

Textbooks? For the time being these will probably remain paper. The lack of highlighting ability in an e-book is currently a drawback, although one that is easily overcome. However the physical interaction with paper media seems to be an overriding benefit for students.

It's odd that what you mention as the strengths of printed books and libraries - searching and random browsing - are exactly what I would call weaknesses. These are aspects where the Internet excels.

It depends.

If you have a good idea of what you are looking for, and it's something that won't generate a lot of false positives, Internet searching is an excellent tool. If you're not quite sure, it becomes much more difficult. Even worse is if you are looking for somebody who happens to have the same name as a famous person, since the false positives for the famous person will overwhelm your efforts to locate information on the not-so-famous person (some journals now allow authors with Chinese surnames to specify which character corresponds to their name, in part to reduce the potential confusion with authors whose surnames are a different character with the same transliteration--Chinese is a tonal language, but most transliterations do not use the accent marks that would indicate tone). Depending on context, Saturn might be a planet, a car, or a Roman god--if you cannot explain that context to a search engine, you will get false positives in your search.

Likewise, are you following links just to see where they lead, or are you looking at other articles which happen to be published in the same issue as the article of interest? The Internet is good at the first kind of browsing: instead of going off to the library to find the references cited in the paper of interest, or first looking the paper up in the citation index and then tracking down the citations you find, you can do all of that from your desktop, and you can thereby find yourself in some rather interesting places indeed. But under the old regime, it was almost impossible to locate a journal article without at least accidentally glimpsing portions of the articles before and after. Now, the only way that happens is if you choose to come in via the table of contents, and most of the time it is no longer necessary to do this (at least in the journals where I normally publish). That kind of serendipity is lost--several times I would look up an article in a paper journal only to notice it was part of a special section on the topic, so that there would be several other papers of interest in the same issue. Today, there is no guarantee that I will stumble across those other papers if I'm not specifically looking for them.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 07 Dec 2010 #permalink

I have a desktop, two laptops, a netbook, an android phone, and a kindle. Not surprisingly, most of my reading is electronic. I also have a collection of old leather bound atlases which are as much a testament to the art and craft of bookbinding as they are to the science of cartography. Can they offer anything close to the level of detail possible with Google Earth? No. In their time, these Atlases would have been a valued part of any library. Now, their only value is as historical and artistic artifacts. People still listen to vinyl in an age when you can keep an entire music library in your pocket. Books won't go away anytime soon. But, eBooks will follow something equivalent to Moore's Law, getting more comfortable and capable with every new release.

Remember that ebooks are still evolving. Some of the "features" missing from ebooks such as the serendipitous discoveries or the browsing of books at a bookstore can be replicated. My favorite ebook system is the Barnes and Noble system. Not because of the reader (of which I use the iPhone version), but because they tried to keep many good aspects of paper books while giving you the enhanced features of ebooks that most people are already familiar with.

For example, you can go to a B&N store and sit down and read as much (even the entire) of a single ebook as you want after being able to browse all of the first chapters as with most ebooks. Best of all, though, is that you can loan most books you purchase to someone else for up to two weeks.

The Google system also adds a nice dimension. You can quickly and easily move back and forth from the basic text of the page to the scanned image of the page.

If you really want the smell, there have been several experimental systems which use disks to create a wide range of smells from a computer. Touch may come in the coming years once paper-like displays can be perfected. Touch and smell, though, are for a niche market anyway, and perhaps it will be best to just allow old-time paper books to fill that niche for the foreseeable future.

The question about touch and feel will be for how long such a niche will be in demand? After a couple of generations of people growing up in an ebook world, will they have the same reactions to physical books? How much of the "feeling" of the physical book was nostalgia? Will people, in 40 years, be nostalgic about having a physical ereader in their hands and be arguing for how nice it is to have the look and feel (and smell?) of such a reader instead of the new direct-to-retina systems?

Dear readers - what excellent, thoughtful comments! Please keep them coming.
About searching and random browsing, my reasoning is that our imaginations and intuition have yet to be replicated by search algorithms such as Google's PageRanking, even with its immense power and speed.

- When on an airplane, you still have to turn off your electronic book-reader at start and 1/2 hour before landing, but you can read your paperback throughout the flight.--
- Children still have to learn to read, and that is probably still better done when you have lots of books of all kinds in your house. Of course, nowadays, they will stop reading books as soon as they get a PC with internet messaging, and access to a TV.--
- From looking other technologies as they became obsolete, we can predict that having books on display in your house will become soon a marker for high social status, the same way having a horse became more of a sign of nobility once the car and tractors made it obsolete for transportation or agriculture. So tell your [grand]children to pass on your books to your [great-]grandchildren, who might appreciate them more!