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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Two from ARCADE: Kindle and Education

Posted by Bill Benzon on 04/20/10 at 11:47 AM

In a post about publishing in the digital age, Lee Konstantinou points out:

Who or what produces demand?  Demand for what exactly?  As I’ve argued elsewhere on Arcade, it is our educational systems, among other literary institutions, that produce demand.  To be as clear as possible, it is not the market operating on its own that produces demand—including, especially, during the so-called golden age of publishing—but rather massive quantities of public money, pumped into literary education decade after decade, your tax dollars and mine at work.

Just around the corner, Brian Reed speaks out in favor of Kindle:

What has changed:  the range and kind of prose that I read in my off hours, usually just before bed, when my brain grows too sluggish to follow poetry’s multidimensional zigzags.

With a Kindle, you typically pay something for the right to read a book ...  So, for instance, if you want to read one of Charlaine Harris’s vampire novels, you look her up, click on the relevant icon, and within a minute you have the text on your device ready to read.  And somewhere else in cyberspace your credit card is charged ten bucks or so.

Unless, instead of a contemporary book, you order one that is pre-copyright, or uncopyrighted, which means you aren’t charged for the right-to-read.  In that case, the book arrives, voila, and you pay nothing.

Nothing!  Books for nothing!  As gamers say, that pwns.

He goes on to recommend, and comment on, some 18th and 19th century books he’s enjoyed.


Thanks for posting this Bill.  I think the whole e-books versus print it a manufactured controversy.  E-books are cheap and will make reading even cheaper. In the future, books will be for rich people.

On an iPad, you can read .pdf, a Kindle book, you can read tons of public domain works.  That does not mean I will never buy a book again. It just better be a really nicely made book.  Places with no infrastructure can benefit from a wired $49 e-reader someday. It will be a book without any covers, a window into all of the world’s knowledge. Distributed in the cloud for anybody to grab. There’s no Alexandria to burn.

You can say that the experience of reading is the tactile sense of the paper, the font, the smell and so forth.  But the interface should be transparent. You are not seeing the book if you are doing it right.

My five year old daughter has heard my favorite poem Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus” hundreds of times and she has made it part of her inner life. But the texture of the stamp of font does not matter to her. The “glimmering girl” transformed from a “silver trout” means something to her despite the fact it was written on a slab of concrete, Kindle e-ink, or toilet paper. She has never read the words. It is part of what Alan Bloom calls the “furniture” of her mind.

Over the years the book will surely be “something else” But in the end, the platform is only a vessel for the narrative of the myth or the poem or the artwork. 

Perhaps this is privileging consciousness over embodiment. So be it. That’s where the magic, and the meaning, happens.

By Christopher Hellstrom on 04/20/10 at 06:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree, Christopher. The controversy’s nonsense.

I just moved, and I surely wish my research library had been electronic. Would have made things a lot easier and cheaper. Yes, I understand that the current crop of eReaders (don’t own any myself) aren’t so good for annotation. That will change. And, fact is, for the most important stuff, I always take notes. On my computer.

By Bill Benzon on 04/20/10 at 07:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Moving libraries is never fun. I always enjoyed your photos of jersey city and hope to see more in your new environs.

One nice thing is the ability to search text. Say you want to search the word “nothing” in King Lear to write a paper. Or you want to search a phrase you may recall. But you are right that it is not as nice to annotate.

I like how Dave Eggers recently defended print newspapers and said “I am tired of doing everything on that god damn screen. Next we will eat on it, have sex through it” I get what he is saying. There is a place for print too. I am not part of “generation screen” and I have my nostalgic attachment to paper too.

However, the e-reader opens up new ways of thinking about the book as a static text. Sure we’ve heard this way back when Robert Coover announced the ‘end of books” But now, with millions of Kindles and iPads and other reader, there may be an active audience for this kind of stuff (and hopefully not more “choose your own adventure” tedium)

What I find most intriguing is the idea of the inner city kid or Haitian getting an e-reader in school. One of my favorite books is Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (Or the Young Ladies Illustrated Primer) In it, the primer teaches young Nell through interactive stories and human “Ractors” It responds to her own thoughts and interest. It’s a book that reads her. 

I think e-books are disruptive not only to publishing but the university as well. Watch a lecture, get graded by an automated program or hive mind, and get coached by reputation-ranked people who care. People spend hours updating wikipedia for things like Brady Bunch episode details.) I think people will spend time replicating the university experience online each contribution would build on the next.

The physical place of the university, like physical object of books, would be a luxury but not a necessity to achieve educational goals.

That’s liberating.

By Christopher Hellstrom on 04/20/10 at 11:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One of my favorite books is Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (Or the Young Ladies Illustrated Primer) In it, the primer teaches young Nell through interactive stories and human “Ractors” It responds to her own thoughts and interest. It’s a book that reads her.

Funny you should mention that, Christopher. If you go over to Mostly Harmless and look at posts under gojira (note especially The Collected Adventures...) and 2001 Redux you’ll find how I played something of that role for two little girls from upstate New York (though they were living in Japan at the time I started telling them stories). Since the girls have never seen me (nor I them) and know me only through stories they read online (or have read to them), I am, effectively, a magical machine to them.

By Bill Benzon on 04/21/10 at 12:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know.  The physical support of the book does matter.  You might be indifferent to type face, but I’m not.  (Of course, your daughter hearing a Yeats poem read aloud has another support, that of a particular human voice.  That matters too.)

If ebooks do something to poetry they might do something to prose too, but something that you might not even realize is happening.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 04/22/10 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m currently in Russia on a lengthy research trip, away from my home in London. I haven’t bought an e-book reader, though I am considering it, but I have been reading e-books on my laptop, in addition to the handful of printed books and journals I have here.

It’s made me realize that physical books are a little more important to me than I thought, in many ways. I still see many benefits to e-books, and the free availability of older books online is a big part of that. Still, there seems to be a long way to go until books become nothing but collectors’ items.

Some of this is purely about technology, which I suppose will improve, but I think does have a distance to go. For example, I tried reading Douglas Coupland’s Generation X in e-book format. It looked very strangely laid out in e-book format, and I checked on Amazon to see how the printed edition was laid out. It became clear to me that I’d have to wait until I could get hold of a printed edition before I could really experience the book properly, that it would be a bit of a waste of time to read it in the format I had available to me. It will probably be easy enough to produce a reasonable e-book copy of Generation X one day, but it’s not something a reader like the Kindle or the Nook could handle in their present forms.

In terms of the availability of older books, I think it’s significant that Google’s depository is of page-image scans. There is no way (as things stand) for e-book-readers to rearrange the text to make them easily readable on those devices - all they can do is display the PDFs as images, which will mean a lot of zooming in and scrolling around, not something e-book readers are well-suited to do.. These PDF files are often, quite large in size, e.g. an illustrated English translation of Eugene Sue’s ‘The Mysteries of Paris’ is 75MB. 20 books like that and you’ve filled up your Kindle’s memory.

Now, you could solve many of these problems by getting an iPad, perhaps - but then (the price aside), you are back to the old problem that nobody really wants to stare at a computer screen for hours on end if they have any choice (which is why e-ink was invented in the first place).

So, it’s wonderful to have so much available online now, and in many ways I do hope that e-books are a success. At the same time, I’m looking forward to switching back to mostly reading printed books when I get home to London.

By on 04/24/10 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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