The role of the print book in an increasingly online world

Back in 2010, working at a scholarly publisher, I had a bet with our Production Director that half our revenue would be digital by the end of 2013. I lost. (We weren’t too far off, in my defence – scholarly publishers generally migrated their library revenues to digital faster and more fully than trade publishers have managed, but still.)

What he realised six years ago and I didn’t was the way that print as a technology suits us as humans so beautifully. For most of us, reading a book is more than simply translating the author’s brain output into our brain input. And reading on a flat screen, with the whole distracting noisy internet just one click away, is a very different technological and sensual experience. Not worse, necessarily, but different.

This week in The Extraordinary Business Book Club I spoke to Dr Tom Chatfield, author of the gorgeously tactile Live This Book. It’s a highly designed series of provocations: invitations to explore our own minds rather than bringing our questions to the internet to find out what everybody else thinks.

We talked about the role of the print book in an increasingly online world, and how it can work for both writer and reader.

‘This is a book that you write in, that you carry around with you, and I guess the genesis of it was the fact that I’ve done five books exploring technology in society. I love this idea of trying to use technology well. More and more as I spoke and wrote and consulted in this that I found people saying that their time, their attention, their focus was this incredibly scarce resource that they were really having enormous trouble keeping under control, and I became very interested in the kind of art and science of concentration, attention, and focus, and how actually a physical book and the physical act of writing on paper is an astonishingly good tool for kind of carving out a small amount of time each day for introspection, for planning a different type and texture of quality of time that you might not otherwise get in terms of working out what really matters, what’s really on your mind, what you’re really planning and hoping and dreaming of, and so on…

‘I’m very interested in getting away from tech bashing and a vague nostalgia for “Weren’t things better in the old days?” Some things are much, much better now. We have astonishing resources at our fingertips, so I’m interested in trying to be precise about this, and what you find if you look at the cognitive science is that resisting temptation, resisting the temptation to click elsewhere, to look elsewhere, to check your email, that burns through a certain amount of mental resource. I think attention management is one of the great skills for the next generation of workers and thinkers, because human attention is spent on our behalf and maybe mispriced by all of the services we use, and the physical tactile object of the act of writing, it lights up your brain in a very different way to stuff on a screen.

‘I’m very conscious of the fact that when I take my wonderful phone or my wonderful Kindle out, everything is in competition with everything else, and I’m dealing with suffusion, and so I think in a way to try to build different kinds of time into your day, and people, I think, are doing this more and more anyway in that nobody wants all their time to be the same kind of time. As human beings, we need difference and variety if we’re going to make the most of our mental resources. We need to sort of put things in boxes, have differentiation. Otherwise, in a way, we risk doing everything as if we were machines, as if we had a limitless data capacity and a limitless memory, and we’re not… We need interpersonal contact. We need things to have friction and texture. Really, memory and understanding are information plus emotion, if you like, and I think to make things stick in our minds, to make things really belong to us, to work out what we mean rather than just what is out there in the Web of information, this is becoming more and more valuable as we’re lucky enough to have more and more information at our fingertips.’

That phrase, ‘friction and texture’ summed it up for me: this is what print provides and a white screen does not. There’s a permanence and a fitness to the words on a printed page that is simply not there with a screen that will show something entirely different the next second.

I’m no less in love with digital books and their possibilities. I love having instant access to my entire library, being able to access a new book immediately, searching for and rediscovering half-remembered phrases. But I better understand now why print is so resilient. I’ll continue to be ambidextrous, reading in print or online as the inclination takes me, knowing that both serve me in different ways. It’s all good.

future of the bookAlison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. www.alisonjones.com

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