Burn Your Books

570_TGWelcome internet traveler. I will be stockpiling neatly organized bits into a collective known as a blog along this portion of your journey. Do not fear for your personal safety, as I will take great care to observe the rules of hospitality during your visit.  As I am a certifiable Tech Geek, I will spend a portion of my efforts exploring the connection between science and technology and science fiction, fantasy, and horror literature.  Please observe all safety regulations as the bits in my collection coalesce.

As I stumbled between the overflow boxes of books hoardishly stacked in my basement, I wondered at my changing attitude towards them.  While in my younger days, I sought them out like a crusader after the Holy Grail, now I find myself stifling a curse as I kick the boxes out of the way.  Likewise as I walk past my bookcases filled with paperback trophies, I hunt for my trusty Kindle and its electronic comfort.  How did I get here?  How did I get to the point of wanting to Burn My Books?  The clutter of all the paper is starting to suffocate me.

In college I took a history of the book class.  We started our research at the beginning of time.  One person had something they wanted to mark down.  He etched characters into stone and handed it to his buddy.  The sample I examined was double the size of a bar of soap and made of pink clay.  It fit nicely in the palm of my hand.  Columns of cryptic characters covered one face of the stone.  Someone back in the BC had invented the technology to communicate through the written word.

Time passed.  Someone else decided they wanted to get the written word out to more people with less effort.  Technology again blossomed out of desire.  Vellum and ink provided the advancement needed.  Dried animal skins made for a nice medium to copy down thoughts and ideas.  The books are a bit heavier and a tad thicker.  Each page felt like a stiff piece of leather that had been left out in the rain.  As the scribes developed writer’s cramp, penning the same words over and over again, they wrote around worm holes in the vellum and created magnificent illuminations.

But again technology pulled the written word forward.  The need to reach even more people pushed technology to the printing press.  Famously Johannes Gutenberg used his version of the printing press to create the Gutenberg Bible in Germany during the 1400s.  The technology behind the Bible required movable type that could be rearranged for each page.  During my college course I had the arduous task of setting the type on a much more advanced printing press than the one used by Gutenberg.  Placing each letter in sequence, shoving tiny slivers of metal between the letters for spacing, and putting wooden blocks around the outside for alignment was a painstaking process.  We only had a few short poems to print on one page.  I can only imagine the effort to typeset the entire Bible.  Beyond the technological breakthrough presented by the printing press, the ink and paper used were monumental.  Paper was lighter, cheaper, and easier to make than vellum, and the ink used by Gutenberg was bordering on miraculous.  I was fortunate enough to handle one page of a Gutenberg Bible.  After nearly six hundred years the paper was still crisp and white and perfect.  The letters of each word seemed to stand off the page.  They almost seemed raised.  They were each so stark and clean.  I have never seen a book or document so artistically printed.

That page made me ask why our books today are not so perfect.  The answer again is technology.  Today we have the ability to print that same quality, but we choose not to.  As books became more and more widespread, we found print quality to be driven by two things: cost and disposal.  In order to reach the volumes of distribution, the price must come down, resulting in cheaper paper and cheaper ink.  Now consider you have millions of newspapers printed each day multiplied by three hundred sixty-five days a year, that’s a lot of paper to wedge into the landfill.  Using paper that can decompose easily helps reduce the volume of waste in the world.

Now we find ourselves again on the brink of a technological revolution.  The same driving factors are at work.  How can we capture even more eyes with our written words?  How can we reduce the cost of each copy even more?  We all know the answer.  We collect bits into well-ordered strings that represent ASCII characters: letters and numbers and hash tags and such.  In place of paper, we have even more bits representing paper.  Fact or myth, an instructor told me that the space shuttle required more than 100,000 lines of code to launch, but MS Word in its earliest incarnations required over 4 million lines of code.  The technology behind this effortless evolution of the written word is high science that with our modern eyes seems mundane.

So again I cast my eyes upon my mountains of paper and wonder if this is the last horizon for this outdated technology.  A friend once asked me why I would want so much paper.  At the time, I thumped my chest and told him to gaze upon the greatness of my library.  Now I hope that I don’t have to move them all.  I speculate how they would look burning in my fireplace.  Technology drags us along whether we are ready or not.  A major book seller closes its doors.  At one retailer ebooks outsell all the print books.  Reduce, reuse, recycle chase us around wherever we go.  Someone let me know.  Is now the time to burn your books?

Postscript:  In four thousand years we have gone from stone tablets to electronic tablets.  Where will we be in four thousand more?  Or four hundred more for that matter?  Farewell on your continued journeys, oh explorer of the internet. Return soon for a sampling of my next collection of bits. Until then I will excite the electrons with my keyboard and see how they form.

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  1. I'm a convert. I love the immediacy of ebooks. When it's 2:00 in the morning and I just finished a great book – BAM! The next one is before me and I'm off again. No getting into the car, fighting traffic, circling for a parking space. Also my eyes are going as my age increases so with just a setting I can increase the font and don't need my reading glasses any more. I can read on my ipad at night in bed without waking my wife, and I can read outdoors on my kindle without any glare. And I'll have far fewer pounds to move the next time we relocate. As I said, I'm a convert.

  2. I have a problem with DRM and the Kindle book licensing. For the most part the Kindle edition is as expensive (or more expensive than) the paperback.

    They cannot be lent freely or given away. The collection you amass dies with your Amazon account. They have "pulled' books from Kindles because of licensing issues, you own a license not a book.

    If I am giving up substantial transference rights the prices of an ebook should be lower. Baen handles this the way I would like to see other publishers follow. $6 a book, no DRM.

    I too amassed a huge collection that I am whittling down. Some of the books were printed on cheap paper that has disintegrated over the years. I am giving them away, I cannot bear to throw out a book.

  3. Books and Bookstores have been a major part of my recreational time. But, after a lifetime of assembling my library the collection became overwhelming. During a lull in my worklife, I spent a weeks vacation time culling. Some treasured tomes were kept, some sold, some gifted and some donated. Good use was made for all. Now, I consider which table/IPad/reader on which to store my next collection having already started with the Kindle App on my Android.

    Burn a book? No. Never. Repurpose, reuse.

  4. I’ve little doubt that production of printed versions will steadily dwindle until it becomes only a specialty market for novelty, gifts, collectors and such, however, it will take a while. Although the news and the internet make it seem not to be the case, there are still many people not particularly interested in engaging in the latest technologies. Until they die off, there will still be demand, though on a constantly shrinking level.

    I will likely be one of those oldsters who still clings to print until his dying days. Burn my books? Barbarism! I think if I were freezing and needed something to burn in order to keep warm, the thought of burning them would be akin to cannibalism when starving. Of course I can’t guarantee that some other rarely used survival part of my genetic code won’t overrule me if it ever came to pass.

    Still, you are correct that print is doomed, at least on a large scale. I was convinced of this last year when I got my first look at a kindle (my wife wanted one). It occurred to me that if I had had one when I was twelve, I would have never bothered with print, perhaps even would have scoffed at it. The reason is that I remember hating to be tethered to a dictionary while trying to read in those formative reading years. Specifically, I remember Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy being a particular pain, frequently having to put one book down in mid-sentence and picking up the dictionary, paging through it to find the word, etc… Yes, Gormenghast was probably a poor choice for my reading level at twelve, but I had no guide, I just grabbed whatever looked interesting at the used bookstore in those days. Anyway, as soon as I realized that a simple tap would pop up the definition on a kindle, I saw the light. Young people will not be attracted to the inconvenience and so print will die.

  5. Oh, I have so many mixed feelings about the ebook.

    I have not yet fallen out of love with the physical printed page, and I constantly seek to surround myself with piles and piles of paper. This may in part be because I am also a writer and an artist, so paper is kind of everything in my life. And I incorporate old newspapers into my work (crumpled up New York Times is a great filler for a clay bust), so I don't feel as though my paper consumption is wasteful.

    The ebook has many benefits – it's lighter, it's more eco-friendly, you can take it on a plane…. But I still don't like reading on a screen. I still want the ritual and the sensation of sitting down and turning pages.

    So for me, at least, I won't be burning my books. Not any time soon, probably not ever.

    My real worry about ebooks outselling print books is that…ebooks come with other things, like games and other such distractions. Are people still reading?

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