Books tiptoe into the digital age

The book’s physicality is being challenged by digital media, but print will remain relevant, professor says

Marta Straznicky, English department head, says print—as a medium—is making a comeback.
Marta Straznicky, English department head, says print—as a medium—is making a comeback.
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On Nov. 19, 2007, Amazon.com released the Kindle: a wireless, battery operated reading device that Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, said will have readers going beyond the physical book.

Amazon’s Kindle is the latest attempt in a long line of digital books—the literary equivalent of the iPod. Though Sony, Bookeen, and even Apple offer similar products, the Kindle is unique in its ability to purchase and download books that can be read anywhere.

Kindle owners can also surf the web, upload personal documents with their Kindle e-mail address and subscribe to blogs, magazines and newspapers, which are delivered electronically to their device on a daily basis.

“This isn’t a device, it’s a service,” Bezos said in a press release on Amazon.com.

All of this is part of the “Book 2.0” revolution: a move towards the integration of one of humanity’s oldest technologies with the convenience and centralizing tendencies of the digital world.

This change in the way we read necessitates a change in how we organize what we read. It has inspired companies such as Google to collect, organize and scan a comprehensive index of every book in human history.

The Google Library Project is in the process of creating what some enthusiasts are calling Infotopia, a digital Library of Alexandria containing the complete literary and social history of humankind. Google has had quality issues with scanned copies of older editions, however.

Marta Straznicky, head of Queen’s English department, studies book history and print culture. She said the reason for the book’s historical success—despite its relatively unchanged format—is simple.

“It works so well. I think if you pick [a book] up, as a technology… it’s easy to hold, it’s portable, it’s easy to read in many positions in terms of your interface with it, it can hold very little or a great deal, so it has a great range in terms of the number and kinds of text it can hold—it’s tactile, it has texture, it has colour, I think it’s brilliant.”

Though digital readers display identical text to their paper counterparts, Straznicky said something gets lost in the translation.

“There are people in Kingston who print books by hand and who can talk to you about all the the decisions that go into the design of a book, the type of font that is chosen, the layout for a page, the illustration, the quality of the paper, the glue, the binding, the shape of the book, and every decision that’s made about the format has to do with their sense of how they want the book to be understood.”

Straznicky said apprehensions surrounding a shift in the book’s form is nothing new.

“In Shakespeare’s time there was another shift from manuscript culture to print culture—print was the new technology, that was the computer of the 16th century, and it’s very interesting, because there were the same kind of scares and alarms about what print was going to do. … That shift was significant, but I think it was less of a shift than what we have now—the completely new technology taking over some of the functions … of the book, introducing others that the book can never perform, but also not being able to do everything that the book has been able to do.”

Although some people are switching to digital media for their literary fix, many readers remain loyal to the printed version, Straznicky said.

“Publishing is more successful now than it has been for a long time. People ironically are rediscovering the book now when these other options are becoming available, and what does that tell us? I think that’s a larger testimony to what I’m saying as an individual reader: that there’s something in books that is irreplaceable,” she said.

Faculty of Education professor Rebecca Luce-Kapler studies literacy, literature and e-learning. She said the move from physical books to e-books is a step in the right direction.

“I think things will begin to change dramatically. Many of us in education feel that we’re kind of on the cusp, where we’re very close to tipping over into where people are doing so much thinking and work digitally, that it’s going to become absolutely critical and essential for [technological] work to become a big part of learning,” she said.

“To me, the exciting thing about digital is the new opportunities offered for learning and the way we think about things.”

Though a move to digitally integrated learning might be a money saver for students—the Kindle costs about $400, while the Student Awards office estimates the average undergraduate student can spend upwards of $1500 a year on textbooks—many scholars are wondering what the effects of this technological revolution will be on their education.

“I think it’s already changed the way students research, but sometimes there’s a lot of getting caught up in the technology, and being excited about the possibilities without sort of looking at what we’re teaching and what we’re looking for and saying ‘what’s the best way to do that?’” Luce-Kapler said.

“The kind of focus people give and the ways that they need to pay attention differ, depending on whether it’s print form or whether it’s on the screen. … There’s some research out there that suggests that the way that people learn on the screen best is hearing, and seeing visuals, which is different than what we think of as how we understand reading a book. It’s not just the text, but the other dimensions of the media that can be called into play.” Cognitive issues aside, Larry O’Farrell, a professor who researches e-learning and the arts through the Faculty of Education, said the potential cultural implications are the most exciting feature of the e-book.

“I think there’s a long way to go, but I don’t think you should look backwards. This access is something we can use to make sure current information and literature is available everywhere,” he said.

“I would look for ways of using these devices for universal access and democratization. I don’t think you go backwards; I think you always move forward. And if there’s a resource, how can you use it?”

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