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"Is the Physical Book in Danger?"

A Speech to Grolier Club, Boston, November 13, 2010, by Chris Morgan, President, the Ticknor Society


The short answer is Yes and No – thank you, and goodnight! I'm kidding of course. The subtitle of my speech could be "How I learned to stop worrying and love the e-book"

Let me begin with a question: Ten years from now, at an author’s book signing, what will the author sign?

And what will our book Catalogs look like in ten years? Perhaps something like this:

Latex glove

Rare OCR file from defective scan of “The Gentleman’s Magazine” Vol. 12, No. 6.

With original rubber glove that obscured part of the scan. Pre-Unicode ASCII variant. Near fine, with some digital faults (Some 1’s may be 0’s).  On original 3-1/2” diskette with hand-written label. Not in Google Books!

In October of 2010, a New Yorker cover featured a cartoon by Roz Chast. It shows books in a library glowering at someone sitting in a chair and reading online. (I wonder if a younger audience would laugh at this cartoon in the same way as an older audience?)

Many members of the Grolier Club specialize in collecting books that are centuries old, and since they’re not making any more of those books these days, you may be more sanguine about the coming of the ebook, and for you the Internet is a boon for finding more of the books you seek.

I suspect, though, that many book lovers today are afraid the physical book is about to go on life support. It reminds me of the story about the man who went to the doctor for his annual test results. The doctor said he had bad news and worse news. “I’ll take the bad news first”, said the patient. “OK, the bad news is that you have twenty-four hours to live”. “What could be worse than that?” The doctor said, “Well, I was supposed to call you yesterday.”

I believe the book has a brighter future than that, and I don’t think that’s just wishful thinking. I’m certainly more hopeful now than I was before I began doing the research for this talk.

I’ll say upfront that I'm not a Luddite – quite the opposite. I'm a technology enthusiast. In fact, you can pry my iPhone out of my cold, dead hand after I'm gone. But let me finish my speech first.

This cartoon is a good place to start. When I saw it, I laughed, and thought it was wonderful. But then I realized it's really a classic example of projection. The books on the shelf are upset, but it's really supposed to be us who are upset – or some of us, at any rate.

It’s a bit unfair to criticize a cartoon meant just to make us laugh, but I think it’s misleading for two reasons. One is that it implies the theory of Supercession. The other is that it is a Decline Narrative. I’ve been thinking about the idea of supercession for a long time, but never knew there was a word for it. I first heard it from Alexander Parker, Director of Research Computing in the Humanities at Harvard, speaking at Radcliffe's wonderful Why Books? conference two weeks ago.

The conference message was much more upbeat than I expected, but it was a guarded optimism. Parker said that supercession was coined by Paul Duguid to define a process whereby "each new technological type vanquishes or subsumes its predecessors."

I think supercession is sometimes a valid theory, and sometimes not. It all depends on the situation and the technologies involved. For example, the DVD has vanquished the video tape. But it didn't happen all at once, because for a long time, the video tape could do something the DVD couldn't do: record a TV show. Since then of course, technology has marched along, and the video tape is now effectively dead. Clearly, supercession describes this well.

But let’s take a contrasting example in the early 1950s, when TV appeared, and many pundits confidently predicted radio’s demise. They were wrong.

In fact, radio and TV continue to coexist happily today, because each offers something the other can’t: TV offers great images, but radio lets you do other things while listening, like driving. I will argue tonight that the ebook and the physical book will continue to coexist for similar reasons.

The other issue with this cartoon is that it’s a form of Decline Narrative, a favorite trope of historians who think civilization is doomed to keep declining. Nothing good can come from this adversarial situation, they feel.  A diagram of a typical Decline Narrative might show a handbasket on the left, with an arrow pointing to Hell on the right. The decline narrators have a favorite movie: “Apocalypse Now” – and I don’t mean the Francis Ford Coppola version.     

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Before we discuss the differences between ebooks and physical books, let’s take a closer look at the revolution now upon us.

First of all, revolutions create new objects, like guillotines. There are good guillotines, like the ones for trimming books, and bad guillotines, like the ones used during the French Revolution to trim readers. Revolutions lead to polarization, and a false sense that things are either black or white. They are two-edged swords (pardon the pun). And this one is no different.

There’s been a lot of heated discussion lately about the physical book vs. ebook, and no shortage of “digerati” pundits, the kind of people John Carroll calls Chinwaggers. They’re the talking heads who love to opine about almost everything. And they’re not shy about offering their opinions on the fate of the book, valid or not.

The Radcliffe seminar called it the battle of the Touters versus the Doubters. Sometimes the debate can get a bit out of hand. I wouldn’t be surprised to see bumper stickers saying “eBooks: Threat or Menace?”, or “Guns Don’t Kill People: eBooks Do!”

OK, I made up that last one. I think ebooks are not a menace – they’re a tool, just as moveable type was a tool. They can be used, or misused. To borrow a phrase Mitch Kapor uses to describe emerging technologies, the eBook is more like an “opportunity to be solved.” All new technologies come with a price attached – and sometimes it’s not just dollars and cents.

What kind of revolution are we in? It’s probably the most profound of the past hundred years, and perhaps the greatest change to our society since the industrial revolution. And it’s happening quickly.

In his seminal book, Revolution in Science, Bernard Cohen discusses the conversion theory of revolutions. In some revolutions, the old guard never fully embraces a new scientific revolution. Instead, they die out and are replaced by the new guard. Sometimes the old guard is won over – or converted to -- the new ideas. But in each case, it takes times for this to work itself out. That causes instability and unrest. Our current situation is made more complex because of the speed of the revolution. The old guard hasn’t had a chance to die out yet. That causes more instability and unrest, as the Internet continues its inexorable growth.

To illustrate the speed of the change going on today, nearly all of the people responsible for inventing the Internet were still alive just a few years ago when they gathered in Harvard’s Sanders Theater for a conference. It was remarkable– a bit like having Galileo, Newton, and Einstein all attending a physics conference.

But what kind of Revolution is it? Many people call it the "Information Revolution." I think that’s a bit misleading. As Harvard’s Ann Blair notes in her new book, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age:

“Early modernists, including myself, have argued that the Renaissance experienced information overload on a hitherto unprecedented scale, drawing a parallel with our experience today . . .

“Ancient medieval and early modern authors working in non-western text articulated similar concerns, notably about the over-abundance of books and the frailty of human resources for mastering them, such as memory and time”

“Early modernists, including myself, have argued that the Renaissance experienced information overload on a hitherto unprecedented scale, drawing a parallel with our experience today . . .Ancient medieval and early modern authors working in non-western text articulated similar concerns, notably about the over abundance of books and the frailty of human resources for mastering them, such as memory and time”

In The Coming of the Book, it’s estimated (on p. 248) that approximately twenty million books existed in the world by the year 1500 – an impressive total. (Not all of these were printed from moveable type, of course.)

If we assume that each title had an average press run of, say, 1,000 copies, then  that’s about 20,000 titles -- meaning you’d have to read more than a book a day for fifty years to get through them all. So by the time Columbus had arrived in the Americas, the book-reading glass was already overflowing. That’s an oversimplification, partly because not all those titles would be worth reading 

So we’ve actually been in an Information revolution – or more accurately, an expanding continuum of information -- for hundreds of years.

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Some background on the ebook

Where did the ebook come from? Back in 1968, Alan Kay envisioned the Dynabook, with a flat screen and keyboard, designed for children. It never got into production, but greatly influenced the development of other computers at Xerox PARC.

I think the person who deserves the credit for first envisioning the idea in detail is Edmund Berkeley. In 1949, he wrote a book called Giant Brains, or Machines That Think. It’s the first book-length treatment of computers. In it he says:

"We can foresee the development of machinery that will make it possible to consult information in a library automatically . . . After further development, all the pages of all books will be available by machine . . .

"We shall be able to use [small machines] to keep addresses and telephone numbers, to figure out the income tax we should pay, to help us keep accounts and make ends meet, to remember many things we need to know, and perhaps even to give us more information. For there are a great many things that all of us could do much better if we could only apply what the wisest of us knows."

"We can even imagine what new machinery for handling information may some day become: a small pocket instrument that we carry around with us, talking to it whenever we need to, and either storing information in it or receiving information from it."

The most important thing to be said about the ebook is that it isn’t a book. It’s Alive! The e-book is just the tip of a long tentacle attached to a machine whose entire reason for being is to get you to buy more e-books. You can bet it will try to interrupt you whenever it can, and in the most subtle but insidious ways. I may sound a bit paranoid here, but we have to understand the nature of the beast. We are, after all, the willing co-conspirators in this symbiotic -- did someone say parasitic? -- relationship. Ebooks know where we live. Physical Books don’t!


A Tyranny of Choice

The good features of the ebook are well-known: tens of thousands of titles at our fingertips in a convenient, lightweight package that doesn’t get any heavier when we add new titles. What could be more magical? Ah, here’s where the Tyranny part comes in. The ebook has an agenda – or rather, we have an agenda that the ebook can feed into. That’s the constant temptation to stop what we’re doing and do something else that might be even more fun. But, you might say, my ebook just sits there quietly while I have my deep reading experience. I don’t follow you. Well, the Amazon Kindle has a built-in web browser – albeit not a very good one. While using the reader, you might be tempted to stop reading to check your email, because it’s just one click away. Well, what’s wrong with that? A lot, as it turns out.

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Micro-Interruptions and Deep Thinking

If information is constantly hitting us in micro doses, it’s a bit like being nibbled to death by ducks – and this can actually inhibit our ability to remember what the information is.

Those of us who spend a lot of time online are absorbing small quanta of information at an unprecedented rate. We are being bombarded by tiny electronic messages – little beeps that impinge subtly on our consciousness. A lot of people – younger people especially – think this is the norm. This kind of information is not necessarily a bad thing. But too much is demonstrably bad, and ebooks are part of a culture that propagates this two-way communication, this closing of the loop. They nag at us. A constant closed-loop connectedness can wear us out. Studies show it can affect our attention span and, most troublingly of all, our ability to remember things in the long term.

Micro interruptions -- like the little bell that goes off whenever an email arrives on your computer – tend to make us subtly more anxious, even if the interruptions bear good news. The constant inflow of minor interruptions triggers tiny fight-or-flight reactions in our brains. These add up over time, and we may experience a subtle degradation in our deep thinking ability. More disturbingly, these interruptions can affect our long term memory.

The power of the micro interruption is great. We have a hard time resisting them. For example, you’re in a store placing an order with a clerk, and the store phone rings. The clerk will almost always answer the phone and in many cases complete an entire transaction with the person on the phone, before getting back to you. They’re afraid of missing out on anything.

Electronic games are a good example of a system that delivers a nearly constant, relentless stream of micro-bursts of feedback to the user. Watch children playing computer games sometime, and see how often they smile. It’s more a case of grim determination on their faces most of the time. It’s a lot of work having that kind of fun!

Recent studies show us the real truth: we need downtime to process and absorb all the information we take in. They also show that multitasking is essentially a myth. Essentially, when we try to do more than one thing at a time, each of the activities suffers to some extent.

Getting back to what this revolution is, I said earlier that the term, “Information Revolution” doesn’t really describe things very well. I think we’re really in an Information Absorption Revolution

The way information is delivered to us effects both the way we absorb it and the way we retain it. The physical book is a one-way street. The ebook is two way, and it will push information at us.

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Happiness Factor

You might think that having instant access to so much information would make us happier. But the Buddhists may be right in claiming that too many possessions – or too much information -- could make us anxious and unhappy.

In a New York Times article called Attached to Technology and Paying a Price, and in an NPR Fresh Air Interview, reporter Matt Richtel says that a constant inflow of information – even positive information – can make us slightly anxious, since the constant stream of mini-interruptions affects our most primal defense mechanisms.

The answer to this problem is to go "offline" every four or five days. Studies show that this actually makes it easier for us to retain information.

Physical books are passive. But, paradoxically, they offer a more satisfying interactive experience, though the interaction is being generated entirely in our minds, as we hold the book, feel the paper, write in the book, and think about what we’re reading. You get to tear a page out if you want. Don’t try this with an ebook.

Here’s an Oscar Wilde quote that originally referred to smoking. However, it does a great job of describing being online:

"[Being connected] is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?"

The physical book has one great advantage:It is beautiful, and beauty equals utility.

Our appreciation of art is a reflection of our deepest desires – which are, on the most basic level, reproductive desires. The propagation of the species is intimately tied to physical attraction and physical beauty, as it is with most species.  Our ancestors began painting caves long before they began developing significant technologies. That may be because there is something deeply entrenched in us to create and consume art. The sciences, on the other hand, are a result of our tremendous curiosity.

Beautiful designs often lead to increased utility. The Museum of Modern Art is full of beautiful examples of form following function. The physical book must surely be one of the supreme examples of this harmonious marriage of the arts and the sciences. I believe that physical books are most useful when they’re also beautiful – i.e., aesthetics count.

eBooks are beautiful, too, but they don't have five hundred years of development time that has led to the miracle of the physical book. When incunabula first appeared, there was much chaos and lack of standards. Different formats vied with each other – folios, octavos, and so on – and designs were all over the lot. It took a long time for the book we're most familiar with today to emerge. The beauty of a book's paper, binding, and decorations seduce you, draw you into it, make you want to spend time with it – and, ultimately, make you want to read it. It does so in a way that ebooks can't (at present) compete with. But I'm not saying either-or here. That's a great mistake, too.

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Opera Model

The ebook/physical book comparison reminds me a lot of the difference between going to a high-definition broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera in a movie theater, and going to the opera house itself.

Both have their good points. The theater version is cheaper ($25 versus a couple of hundred dollars), you don’t have to drive to New York, you can eat popcorn during the opera, and you get close-ups of the performers.

Of course, it’s not the same as being in the opera house, with the thrill of the sounds of the orchestra vibrating through the floor boards, and being conscious of the audience around you as you share a communal experience.

Last year the Met sold nearly 2.5 million theater tickets, so the experiment has been a huge success. I’ve been to both the high-definition theater broadcasts, and the Met itself, and I like both for different reasons. So the theater version actually subsidizes the live version. And the Met still sells out its live performances.


Good Things about eBooks:

Offer convenient, small, portable libraries and an attractive reading experience

Open exciting new markets for book distribution

Extend existing markets by making purchases effortless 24 hours a day

Offer potentially cheaper e-textbooks for students

Are great for self-publishers

Can surf the web

Can have scores of references works built in

Offer new funding schemes for authors by exploiting social websites

Offer world-wide networks to discuss books and authors

Offer podcasts and videocasts of authors


Bad Things about eBooks: 

Do not offer the same rich, immersive reading experience.

Know where you live

Can potentially interrupt you

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Good Things about Physical books 

Offer a deep sustained, uninterrupted reading experience.

Have both beauty and utility

Can have an author's signature and dedication

Can be personally inscribed as a gift

Are more elegant as a gift than a gift card for a free download

Can have actual written glosses

Are cherishable as physical objects

Can be used for teething

Can be passed down as heirlooms

Have pockets at the back (library books only) so you can see when they were last checked out – and sometimes who checked them out.

Do not beep at you

Do not know where you live



Can wear out in time or be damaged



Is the physical book in danger of becoming a niche market? I’d have to say again, yes and no, because in many ways the book market has always been a niche market. Today, about 15% to %25 percent of Americans (depending on which surveys you read) do not buy any books. Only about 13% buy more than ten books per year.  Americans are definitely reading – they’re just not reading a lot of series, long-form material.

The physical book is iconic, and the approximately 65,000,000 or so books in existence today are not going to suddenly disappear into dark storage anytime soon. That's partly because libraries are not going to disappear, since the library is not mainly repository for books, but a center for learning.

The book as we know it today, the codex, has survived for half a millennium not because it is a beautiful thing, but because it does a beautiful thing

The book as we know it today, the codex, has survived for half a millennium not because it is a beautiful thing, but because it does a beautiful thing. Its beauty comes out of usefulness as much as aesthetics. It can fully engage the brain in ways that cannot be done any other way, or with quite the same effect. But the ebook also has an important place in the future of reading and learning.

A friend of mine just received a Kindle as a gift. She said she’s not a hi-tech person, but loves the Kindle because it gives her “instant gratification.” When asked if she would continue to buy physical books as well as ebooks in the future, she said “Yes, because if I really like a book, I want to have it.” For her, owning the physical object was important.

I’ll finish with something Adrian Johns, author of The Nature of the Book, said recently, quoting John Milton:

"We, like Milton, live for the moment when knowledge has left institutions and is wandering through strange, ill defined, combative spaces."

I couldn’t say it any better. And in conclusion, watch out for those ducks!

Copyright 2010 by Christopher Morgan. All rights reserved.


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Last modified: Thursday, 18-Nov-2010 13:33:02 EST