Monday, November 26, 2012

Are books worth saving?

I love books.  My family didn't have television where I grew up.  Instead, I had shelves and shelves of books.  Yes, I was (still am) quite the nerd.

Having been a book aficionado for many years, I was sad to come across a recent Hacker News post about a bookstore in decline.  Are print books so far gone that even the hackers, the constant innovators, can't save them?

It seems that blogs are taking over as the authors go-to method for disseminating information.  Jeff Atwood doesn't even want you to buy his book.  There are quite a few reasons for blogging:
-Blogs are easy to set up.  It took me all of 15 minutes to set up Recoding (and most of that was picking a name).
-Blogs are free
-You don't have to convince anyone that you're writing's "good enough" to blog
-If some technology changes, you only need to edit your blog to be up-to-date

So blogs are way cooler than books.  Heck, Jeff Atwood wrote a whole book and then told everyone not to buy it.  Problem is, this incredibly low barrier to entry has resulted in an incredibly low signal-to-noise ratio.  The lack of quality control has had many detrimental effects, including the viral spreading of poor coding techniques.  Recently, a post recommending the use of jQuery made the front page of Hacker News*.

Alright, blogs aren't the savior of independent journalism that we want them to be.  Despite these flaws, blogs are still fairly popular and some of them are quite a pleasure to read.  Is there anything about books that is actually worth saving?

Print books have several large advantages over digital media:
-Books contain a large amount of information centrally.  Blogs typically contain information in "nugget" form.
-The bar is much higher.  While bad information can be published in book form (just look at any political book this season), the signal-to-noise ratio is much better than the internet.
-There are other miscellaneous reasons:Books don't need a battery, you can use bookmarks, they can help you feel disconnected, they're DRM-free, some like the smell of books.

I'm usually in favor of new technology when it replaces the old.  Some may pine for the romantic days where everyone went around with a horse and buggy but I enjoy traveling in my climate-controlled box at 65 mph.  However, the nuggets of data presented to us by the internet simply can't replace classic tomes like Code Complete 2.

So books are worth saving.  How?
Ebooks are one promising arena.  While they run on batteries, the basic Kindle's life is absurdly long.  Unfortunately, ebooks are still restricted in most areas by draconian DRM.  Why can't I share my ebook like my paper one?
Speaking of Amazon, they're still doing well.  Brick-and-mortar bookstores might have problems, but books are still being distributed online.
Both of these are nice but aren't the real issue.  Book distribution needs to be easier.  Create a simple, centralized system for book distribution, with some sort of basic quality control (avoiding stuff like bad code or Twilight).

Any other ideas for saving the humble book?  Think I'm off my rocker for wanting to save them at all?  Leave a comment!

*Yes, jQuery has it's uses.  There's a lot more questionable recommendations in the post I linked to (such as the use of CoffeeScript).

1 comment:

  1. As an item of commerce, the book and other printed forms may have a limited life, but as an archival form they cannot be beat. The storage life of printed matter, using archival quality paper and inks, can be centuries. Electronic forms may only be years due to changes in storage devices, DRM and file formats. Further electronic data requires active management, creating new copies while the existing copies can reliably be read.
    Long form works, that is books or the electronic equivalent will retain their place for those uses that short form collections which include wikipedia, do not provide the depth of information useful anto and required by experts.
    A future role of libraries could be printing and archiving such works for long term storage.