June 21, 2017

Spines On the Bookshelf

Today listening to the latest Track Changes podcast, Maris Kreizman Wants to Mail You Books there was a statement by Paul Ford of Postlight and many other things at Ftrain commented about how he likes physical book, particularly on his bookshelves as looking at their spines he will “think new thoughts because of the juxtapositioning of the spines”. This was brought up because it is one of the things that ebooks don’t offer.

This remixing and thinking new thoughts by looking at one’s shelves and the book on them is something I have a few conversations about over the last 5 to 10 years of reading digital books and paper books. Each physical book, not only has its own content with it shared and intermingles with one’s own preexisting knowing (or even can supplant prior understanding), but they accrete context interwoven with when and where they were read. They can also accrete understandings and framings that were concurrent thoughts during that reading. A book can really sink in for me when I discuss it with others, to a lesser degree it takes hold when I write about it. So, when I think of a book through the spine I see on the shelf I can often see the people I interacted with around the time I was reading it or discussing it with others.

This visceral sense springs to life when looking at my shelves (less so with the stack not currently shelved for various reasons). But, also the intermixing of the spines and their concurrent and accreted thoughts and understanding that come along with them.

Bookshelves and physical books are a sensorial wonder that ebooks don’t bring along. I can’t feel where in the book I read something - how much of the book’s pages are stacked on the right side, how many on the left, what side of the book a thought or passage may have been on, or where I was when I read it. These ancillary senses are not permitted when I read something as an ebook.

I do read ebooks and I find the ability to have a stack of books in my pocket or thin bookbag something nice. I also deeply appreciate the ability to search in an ebook. The ability to highlight and pull that highlight out easily (this is increasingly difficult with Findings cutting this off and Readmill shutting down). Having digital notes typed out easily in the pages of an ebook and having relatively easy retrieval is also nice (when there is easy access, see above).

What ebooks don’t provide is that sensorial interaction and deeper recall. The other ability that is missing is the ease of flipping through a book to find what is needed and flipping through the pages prior to what is found to be helpful to get context easily. The flipping through prior pages to get the beginning of a framing of an idea or concept is really nice. It echoes the gutting a book I learned in Oxford and is a practice that has stuck with me. I’ve run into a few people who have the same gutting practice and they also haven’t found a way to work ebooks in the same manner.

My preference? Both. They each have their benefit. Paper books have their added sensory enjoyment. But, ebooks have that ease of portability and search, as well as annotation (when it has some permanence).

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