Sunday, October 3, 2010

Print is great for some things, and not for others

coleus, on campus

I notice a lot of nostalgia floating around out there for printed materials. I would understand if it was just librarians, whose ways of organizing things are being wrecked, but it's also from educators and downright technophiles (see The Shallows). I understand this, I really do. And there are plenty of instances where I too prefer a printed book. Then again, I'd rather not forget that our recent escape from being dependent on the printed page -- despite print's many advantages such as The Focused Concentration! The One-On-One Dialogue that a printed book permits! The ability to Spill Coffee on a printed object and still have it function! -- is something to celebrate.

We are moving away from a world where print sufficed for many things but wasn't ideal, into one where we can use it for some things but don't have to for others. (Learning how to pronounce a foreign language? Looking for lyrics to a song? Hooray for not being limited to a print world!)

As with many discussions, it's tempting to turn the conversation about printed materials into a simplistic pro/con debate, and although the situation is complex, I've caught myself wanting to commit firmly to either printed books or an e-reader and be done with it.

But right now there are certain situations where print is still superior, and perhaps it's important to identify which situations those are so we can move forward from there, instead of feeling we're losing something by not printing the vast quantities of junk that used to appear in book form. Instead of waiting for printing, binding, and delivery, we can now choose to bestow printed status only on certain things. When we want to focus, when we don't want to multi-tast or socialize, we print the thing. And skimming -- which, let's be honest, is a valuable skill for many serious readers -- is now easier than ever.

This last is where e-readers are getting things wrong as they attempt to replace printed books: They forget that the main benefit of a printed book is the ability to do a close, sustained, uninterrupted reading. (Also, my personal gripe is that e-readers are not durable. I buy a book, read it, and there's the chance that I can sell it or swap it with someone else. I buy a Kindle, use it, get sand in its buttons, and nobody wants to take it off my hands.)

We find ourselves at the point where the consequence of printing something is an elevation of the content being printed. Spending the energy on putting something into a printed format lends it importance. The question is, how often does that need to happen? Most writers like to think that their work is worth printing and putting into a book so that an audience can devote sustained attention to it, but now they face a filtering layer of the online world. Suddenly there might be less need to expand an idea of dubious consequence into an entire book.

Which I think is a good place to end for the week...

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