Friday, January 25, 2013

Books and The Latest Technology

Fredrick Furnivall, OED Editor
via Wikipedia
I write here a lot about technology and books, but specifically about open education resources and open textbooks, all of which tend to mean electronic texts. I love electronic texts and the internet. Through the internet, I have free access to centuries of research, articles, and books of all kinds: books now to costly to print or own, out-of-print books, rare books, books in libraries I can't travel to. I even get a chance to see images of ancient texts never before published as lexicographers and philologists put their research online. I have never been one to bemoan the so-called death of the printed word. I like being able to access nearly any text on my phone or netbook in a completely searchable format. But be that as it may, there are still three main reasons I love and use books as physical objects.

1. Linear Arrangement
I am thinking here of the Oxford English Dictionary. The one I have at home is the two volume edition. I don't know how to classify this first reason; it is the serendipity of linear organization I think. Please help me out if there is a word for this. The linear nature of information in books is a weakness in most cases and the non-linear nature of information on the internet is a strength. Before I had access to the internet, I kept a notebook next to me while I read and I would write down words that I found that I would want to explore later or ideas, concepts, and definitions that I would research in the library. Later, I would sometimes look a word up in the online version of an encyclopedia or the Oxford Dictionary which had for a time, an online version. I always came away from that experience feeling like I had only done half the job, like there were pieces of the puzzle missing. I realized that looking up a word in that dictionary is only half the fun. The best parts were getting to the word that you were looking for and what happens after you find it. Opening up the physical book, you begin to turn the pages and as you get to the appropriate section, you begin to read in a more focused way looking for the right word, and as you find it, you begin to see words before and around it that are related. They may have the same root or prefix. Those surrounding words may provide you with a deeper understanding or even a more fitting word. And afterwords, there is looking at the etymology and quotations which can lead you to even more words. Pretty soon, the entire afternoon is gone. I have not had a similar experience online.

2. The Physical Object
Books as physical objects can be works of art in themselves. The cover design, typography, illustrations, paper and cover all contribute to books as art objects. Well designed layout and typography can make reading a book easier and more pleasurable. Granted, this is purely a subjective experience. It is also what keeps books expensive. The photograph below is one that I took of my copy of Selected Epigrams from the Greek Anthology by J.W. MacKail. It was published in 1908 in two volumes on acid free paper, cloth bound, stitched binding. The paper has a thick, creamy texture and if you look carefully at the picture, you can see the type impressing in from the previous page. I bought the set for $2 because "there is not much call for this sort of thing now-a-days." I will not have a similar experience online. 

3. Utility
There are just some tasks that are easier to do on my desk or at the coffee table than they are on a computer. There is this great book called The Three Text Hamlet: Parallel Texts of the First and Second Quartos and First Folio edited by Kliman and Bertram. The book opens up to about 28 inches and has the complete text of the three versions of Hamlet with a fourth column giving the transpositions from the first quarto. This would be a difficult thing to recreate on a computer. I guess one could have a large enough monitor, but it is a real treat to be able to sit on the floor with this book and argue for one interpretation over another based on the text that, at the moment anyway, supports your argument. Again, this is a fairly subjective experience, it is like being able to take in a whole map at a glance to take in the context of a place rather than just seeing a small portion of it just to find out where you are going. 

There are some surprises for me in all of this - I thought I would be much more attached to art books but a couple of things have happened to art books over the years. The ink and printing have gotten so expensive that the publishers are using cheaper and cheaper materials. Some art books just stink now. Also, with Google Art Project, I can virtually walk through the door of the museum, see where the painting is hanging, and then get so close that I can see each stroke, hairs left by the brush, and threads from unfinished canvas. It does not replace seeing the paintings, but I think it is superior to some of the art textbooks that I have seen out there. SmartHistory is also a great alternative: 
"Traditional textbooks are prohibitively expensive for many and do not take advantage of the digital technologies that are reshaping education. For example, textbooks often use only a single image to represent a work of art, they speak with an authoritative but impersonal voice, and they rarely incorporate the many valuable resources that universities, libraries and museums make available. We built Smarthistory to emphasize the experience of looking at art by using unscripted conversations recorded in front of the work of art whenever possible, by incorporating numerous images and video, and by curating links to high-quality resources on the web."
Google Art Project is freely available and SmartHistory is openly licensed, and free. There is no reason that these sources couldn't replace the $200 plus art history or art appreciation textbooks. This is the right tool for that job.

The current costs of books, especially textbooks, is unconscionable. Despite that, sometimes the best technology is not the latest. There is a time to break out the 3-d drawing software and a time to break out the pencil and paper. 
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