Charles Petzold

Looking Forward to “Print is Dead”

October 24, 2007
New York, N.Y.

One of the blogs I read regularly is Jeff Gomez's Print is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age. He recently wrote a book identically entitled; it'll be published next month and I've pre-ordered it from Amazon.

I am perfectly aware that I can start reading excerpts from the book online, but I'd rather not. I want a broad, lengthy, coherent argument about why I should be rejoicing about the transition from printed books to electronic books, and I'm trusting that Jeff Gomez's book in its entirety will give me precisely that. Traditionally, that's what books are good at. Books excel at delivering a sustained argument that can't be handled adequately in 1,000 or 5,000 or even 10,000 words. I want the 100,000-word version with the depth and detailed analysis possible only in a book.

I'm looking forward to Jeff Gomez's book so much because I sometimes find his blog entries somewhat baffling. I always expect there to be another paragraph or two that provides a bit more clarification. One of the benefits of book-writing over blog-writing is that there's usually an editor involved who will spot deficiencies in the prose and persuade the author to flesh out the sketchy stuff. This is what I'm looking forward to in Jeff Gomez's book.

Meanwhile, let me give you a few examples of spots in his recent blog entries where I became confused.

In a blog entry entitled "Living the Life Electronic: Farhad Manjoo on life without newsprint" Jeff Gomez discusses an article in Salon about the pains involved in giving up the printed newspaper, and writes "But the fact that people will and do miss print has nothing to do with the efficacy of digital reading (not to mention to the inevitability of digital reading)." I think I want a better explanation of exactly what "efficacy" we're talking about, and also the "inevitability" of the process.

If most people who really like to read books reject digital books, why should this transition still be "inevitable"? Are new technologies better for us simply because they're "new"? Do we not as a society have a choice in rejecting certain technologies if we judge them to be dangerous or even unnecessary?

Here's one that really annoyed me: "What Hath Jobs Wrought: 'They need to stop with the iPods'" where Jeff Gomez mocks a women who makes the perfectly reasonable statement that “Just because it’s new doesn’t make it better.” (I didn't watch the video; I trust it's hilarious.) This woman isn't saying that "Everything old is better than everything new." However, mocking that woman implicitly contradicts her and says "Just because it's new does make it better," which is a frightfully myopic sentiment, and simply not true.

Jeff Gomez adds "I bet that — a hundred years ago — you would have received the same reactions in terms of people talking about horseless carriages and the telephone." I hope no sentences in his book begin with "I bet that...." Stuff like that need to be researched! (And yes, people who lived on quiet roads in the country didn't react kindly when some ugly, deafening, smoke-belching contraption first rolled by their homes.)

Of course, early reactions to now-common technologies are always good for a few laughs. (Weren't people stupid back then! Aren't we so intelligent now!) We've become so adapted to certain technologies that we can no longer imagine life without them, and hence we think they're inevitable, and hence questioning those technologies seems positively perverse. If someone points out "The world would have been better off had the internal combustion engine never been invented," you can bet that instead of thoughtfully pondering this concept, people will start screaming "Are you nuts??? How would I get to the mall?????"

But back to the blog entry. Jeff Gomez attributes a hostility to technology as "a general fear of the new, and a desire to always have things remain the same. However, as we all know, the only thing that remains the same is the fact that things will indeed always change. So, like it or not, technology is here to stay."

This scares me, because as I mentioned above, it implies that we as a society are powerless to reject technologies that may be bad for us. Apparently, anything technology that can do, that's what we must embrace. It doesn't matter whether it's good or bad. It's coming down the road, so you better learn to live with it. Moreover, if you question that technology, it's not because of any insights you may have about technology and society. It's because you're a geezer and you're afraid.

In a blog entry entitled "Excerpt Marks the Spot: “Us and Them” audio excerpt now available", Jeff Gomez has a link to the first chapter of his book and an except that contains the sentence:

Banned? Banned? Who said anything about books being banned? What is the word even doing in that sentence? It's like a politician suddenly saying "I assure you we have no intention of euthanizing everyone above the age of 75." It starts to make you wonder, does it not?

A recent article by Jeff Gomez entitled "Left on the Shelf" is somewhat disorienting. Although it's on a web site entitled "Publishing News" the opening paragraphs are mangled with a chunk of repeated text.

In this article Jeff Gomez cites statistics that show how few people actually read books. But similar statistics were quoted long before the personal computer age. A couple decades ago, television was blamed for people's abysmal reading habits! He talks about newspapers shrinking and laying off staffs. But decades ago people complained about the very many newspapers that were once published, and how now most cities are down to one, or two, or three. But again, that was long before the personal computer was invented.

He points out that people are reading a lot of stuff online and "all of it consists of the taking in and processing of words." But then he says something truly baffling: "Whether or not the words were first printed in a book or magazine or newspaper shouldn’t matter (after all, the printed page is a display device, and thus is no different to an iPhone)."

Really? It doesn't matter where the words were first printed? I don't know about you, but I read an email, a blog entry, a Wikipedia article, a newspaper, a magazine article, and a book quite differently. A different mind-set is required for each, and that's part of the beauty of the printed word. The medium is (at least a significant part of) the message. We know if what we're reading is a magazine, or a pamphlet, or a book, and we adjust our "reading minds" accordingly.

The final two paragraphs of the article are these:

I've actually never heard anybody say that "if books go away then surely reading will follow." That's obviously ridiculous. But if books go away then book reading will likely go away, if by "book reading" we mean "devoting sustained stretches of time to reading and assimilating a 100,000+ word fiction or non-fiction narrative." Because on the screen, everything's the same, except that the 100,000+ word narratives are longer and more tedious, and therefore to be avoided except for the particular page the Google Book Search landed you on.

So "why not let it begin with a screen?" Because we spend way too many hours of the day looking at screens already? Because book reading requires a quiet mind and reduced distractions? Because hyperlinking isn't reading? Because books deserve better than to be dumped into the same digital soup as YouTube videos and this week's insipid pop hits? Because nobody cherishes bits?

As you can see, I'm confused. I thought technology was supposed to solve problems, and yet I don't see a problem with paper-and-ink books. (I almost wrote "flesh-and-blood books" so perhaps you can better understand where I'm coming from!)

That's why I'm looking forward to Jeff Gomez's soon-to-be-available book Print is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age, because speaking as a person who actually reads books: I just don't get it, and I want to understand.