Some implications of "digital" for scholarly writing and publishing

Do books influence digital culture?

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I had high hopes for a post entitled “How books influence digital culture”. It’s an interesting topic; but  the post itself (on the Good E-Reader platform) is a disservice to books. Moreover, it’s barely literate, for example, the following cryptic non-sequitur: “Popular games like DOTA 2 and League of Legends are quite popular as pastime titles and games that turn players into professional athletes”. I don’t know of many, or indeed any, computer games that turn players into professional athletes. But perhaps I am taking the Good E-Reader site too seriously. It looks like so many sites, stringing together a few tired words around what look like paid links to gambling sites. The post author, Markus Reily, was also responsible for posts such as “2 Most interesting gambling books of all time”, and “5 E-Books that will make you a better casino player”. Such links are tiresome.

But more insidious is the intention, I think, to stress how many products in the digital era have their origins in books. This view of books places them somewhere next to dinosaurs and wooden carriage wheels – that is, items of curiosity value, but with no practical function in the modern world. The author seems to be astonished that the James Bond films originated as books! He continues: “It’s comforting to know that paper books still exist. Collectors have them on their shelves” – but it sounds like books have no value beyond collectors. It’s easy to disprove this: walk into a local bookshop and see it Is not just full of collectors. Bookshops didn’t die, which suggests there is something of value in the format still.  

To be honest, I think a post about how books influence digital culture is starting from the wrong place. I think (unlike the author of this post) that books have some life in them yet, and that they can be influenced by digital culture and co-exist successfully.

A quick appraisal of the value of books today might be:

Books are useful, even in the digital age:

  • Books represent a coherent, organised statement about a theme (unlike many blog posts). They are the result of reflection, rather than the work of a moment.
  • Books provide several indicators that enable you to get an idea of its position. Who is the publisher? When was it published?
  • The physical object of a book can be appraised as immediately: is it long? Is it short? What does the cover image suggest? How does the author present herself/himself?
  • You know where you are in a book (if you have a bookmark)  – I can never work out how far I am through an e-book.
  • It’s fun to turn the pages of a novel with a plot.
  • Illustrated books can show the illustration, at the right scale, alongside the relevant text. E-books still struggle to achieve this.

But undoubtedly books have their shortcomings, which are revealed in the digital age:

  • Both non-fiction and fiction books, even short ones, are typically a couple of hundred pages long, which is long enough  for me to forget the names and details of individual names, places, characters. It is quite useful to refer back to earlier in the book to remember what I missed. After all, most books are read over a long period, days, if not weeks: long enough to forget details. Digital texts can be searched at any moment, in any direction.
  • E-books are wonderfully portable. I can take the entire text of Samuel Pepys’ diary, more than a million words, downloaded onto my smartphone.
  • Useful book indexes are the exception, not the rule. Most back-of-the-book indexes are restricted to proper names, and provide minimal help to the reader. A full-text digital index by word is better pretty much every time

The conclusion, of course, is that print and digital can and do coincide. I read books in print format, but I look things up digitally (it’s quicker). I have a book to read in the airport queue, and a smartphone for digital books when  I am lying on the beach; but equally I can read on a smartphone in the queue, and read a paperback on the beach. We don’t have to write a requiem for printed books just yet; and this post is by no means the definitive statement about the interplay of books and digital culture.  

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1 Comment

  1. The fact that you might have Pepy’s diary on your phone is a fantastic illustration of the power of books in all formats, Michael! I used to read Pepys as a print book propped on a stand over my dinner; I have also listened to it as an audiobook on Audible. I have also listened to Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf and to The Iliad as an audiobook, and what could be more appropriate than these ancient epics as spoken words? This guy with his gambling books doesn’t know the half of it!

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