I got a book in the mail today that made me very happy. But the future of anything on paper is obviously limited. My feelings about this are complex.

A Lovely Book · Today I received the my copy of the PDML Photo Annual 2008-09, previously described in 59 Photographers, 16 Countries, 1 Book.

The PDML Photo Annual 2008-09

Buy one: Improve your coffee table
and raise money for a good cause.

It is beautiful, a fine piece of design with delicately minimal typography and intelligent layout. Some of the pictures are amazingly good, and I find the effect of 59 different wildly uncoordinated photographic visions to be exhilarating, gleeful. From a Tantric point of view an act of worship.

Now, this could only have been done on paper. And you can publish one-offs for less than $50, here via Blurb. I’m wondering what else we really need dead trees for.

Newspapers · We’ve been watching what seem the death throes of the newspaper business. I think it may have a future. Our local paper for example, the Vancouver Sun, which has been getting very smart: On the front page, every day, is a hyper-local city story and one of the columnists, usually writing intensely. Also, I actually find the display ads useful sometimes. The decision to keep subscribing is easy. That doesn’t mean that they can necessarily recover from the Internet’s displacement of the insanely-profitable classified-ad business.

But, should they survive, there’s not a single reason in the world that they need to be on paper. I’d much rather have something small and electric beside my toast and jam.

Kindling · This piece is in part provoked by the Kindle 2 launch. With the advent of E-Ink, for the first time mass-market electronic displays are approaching the resolution, and potentially the typographic excellence, of ink-on-paper technology.

I am bookish; have been, my mother reports, since she found me at the age of six lost in a National Geographic, and I hope to remain that way on my deathbed. My wife is bookish. My nine-year-old is already bookish (inhaled all of Harry Potter in just over a month last summer) and the toddlergirl has already memorized her favorites (even some of the challenging Fox in Socks). I have published pictures of books, in Entropy and A Slim Book of Verse. Here’s another:

Mom’s 1955 cookbook

This is the cookbook my mother received as a wedding present in 1953; she knew little of cookery as a bride and this was a stepping-stone toward her present mastery. Isn’t it beautiful? When I took this photograph last Christmas, it was out on the counter because she was using it.

I offer these pictures in an elegiac spirit; books are starting to feel like artifacts of the past.

The Future of Books · What is it? It seems that the only virtue of printed books the electronic readers won’t match is pure beauty. While we can expect something less remarkably ugly than the Kindle, we will not I think soon match the pleasure given the eye and fingers by any of the examples illustrated or linked-to here.

So it’s Jean-Luc Picard’s future, I suppose; books as coffee-table adornments, art medium, and collectibles.

This is a Good Thing · We’ve all gotten used to saying “dead trees” now. A whole lot of them are killed pretty near where I live; the forestry industry is a filthy, dangerous business which despoils the landscape and mutilates a saddening number of the young men who labour in it. I love wood, and I suspect that, intelligently managed, our forests can supply us with houses and furniture for the foreseeable future; paper too, if its use is restricted to the pursuit of beauty.

The consumption of the forests in the interests of printing disposable paperbacks and superseded-every-year textbooks and whatever newspapers become is neither defensible nor excusable, looking forward. A true story: The other day the new phone book and yellow pages showed up at my office door and I dropped them, still sealed, in the recycling bin.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Davide (Feb 26 2009, at 01:08)

Although McLuhan got all the stage for himself, his reflections on the old and new media have been initially prompted by Harold Innis, Toronto economist. Innis was extremely critical of the paper industry because he saw it as a a process turning trees into (mostly) meaningless items that are read and discarded in a matter of minutes.

So in a way all of the debate that followed on the new media has somehow been prompted by an ecologist preoccupation about the forests of Canada feeding the printing presses. I am not sure this point casts any light on the previous reflections, but it's nice to see recurring patterns.


From: John (Feb 26 2009, at 01:26)

Yet people still have their own thoughts/issues with Kindle 2...

From Pogue's great line to XKCD, let alone professional readers, done out of a wage by emotionless technology.


It is amazing how kids that can't yet read memorise their whole book collection and blindside you into thinking they cabn actually read


From: Jim Millen (Feb 26 2009, at 01:59)

I generally agree - but I would worry a lot more about dropping a Kindle in the bath than I would a paperback!

I'd also note that as far as wasting trees goes - banning junk mail would be a good start. Most days I pull stuff straight from my mailbox and dump it straight in the recycling bin - complete waste of time and resources!


From: Jörg Erdmenger (Feb 26 2009, at 02:09)

Hi Tim, as usual I think your piece on books is very thoughtful and I agree with your prediction that a lot of stuff that is printed in books or newspapers today won't get printed for very much longer but rather distributed in some electronic way. And maybe that is a good thing with respect to the number of trees that can be saved - alas, I fear that the books will be superseded by eventually cheap electronic devices whose ecological footprint might be orders of magnitude worse than that of decent library of books ...


From: Tkil (Feb 26 2009, at 02:09)

In a lovely bit of techno-synergy, my iPod decided to serve up Peter Gabriel's <q>A Different Drum</q> (off the <cite>Passion</cite> soundtrack, with it's driving <q>I'm ready</q> refrain) as I was reading your piece.

And I'm completely agreed on the fate of dead trees, all the way to having an identical story of recycling unopened white and yellow pages...


From: Val (Feb 26 2009, at 09:44)

Re: "What is it? It seems that the only virtue of printed books the electronic readers won’t match is pure beauty."

I mostly agree with you -- I've loved books from a very early age, but read much more online than in print these days. I don't like the idea of cutting down forests to print junk mail that goes straight from my mailbox to my recycling box in. Having worked in newspapers for almost 20 years, I stopped subscribing long ago. I rarely read more than about 10-20% of a daily paper; the rest is wasted on me.

However, books have one powerful advantage that electronic works don't: they can be read directly.

Your mom's (beautiful!) cookbook could well be legible in a thousand years if it manages to death by water or fire. I can't read the stuff I have on backup disks and tapes from 2 decades ago; without (compatible) hardware, software and electricity, all my current digital media is just a bunch of shiny metal and plastic.

How do we apply the longevity and accessibility of printed works to digital media? What do we leave so that future archeologists can make sense of us?


From: Doug K (Feb 26 2009, at 10:36)

I like newspapers qua paper - spilling milk on the paper doesn't destroy it. It is wasteful though. I subscribe mostly to help keep the newspaper in its Platonic ideal alive.

Books have the overwhelming advantage of needing power only at the production stage. Keeping all the household devices charged/battery'ied is very tedious.

Yes, phone books go straight from the doorstep to the recycling bin. I wonder if there's any way to opt out of getting them.


From: dret (Feb 26 2009, at 11:04)

with regard to wise and maybe not so wise uses of precious forest trees for producing paper, today's NYT front page has a highly relevant article:



From: John Hart (Feb 26 2009, at 14:49)

The Silicon Alley Insider did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to show that the NYTimes' printing costs per year far exceed the cost of buying every subscriber a Kindle.



From: Tony Fisk (Feb 26 2009, at 18:12)

I doubt books will ever go away completely.

Books are not a purely visual experience.

Two things they still offer, that your average Kindle doesn't is tactility and browsing.

Oh yeah, and no batteries


From: Michael Fuller (Feb 26 2009, at 18:29)

> But, should they survive, there’s not a single reason in the world that they need to be on paper.

It's kinda hard to do the cryptic crossword if the paper isn't paper!


From: len (Feb 27 2009, at 06:51)

I find myself envisioning the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid, staring at the blank walls and wondering what possessed a civilization to devote so many resources to building something of so little documented value.

Not to go tin-foil hat but something went missing and I wonder if it was an explanation in a medium that had little staying power once the civilization that powered it didn't.


From: Joseph McAllister (Feb 27 2009, at 13:15)

The last job I had before I retired was driving a bus in the city of Seattle, and King County, in which Seattle is located. One of the things that set me back a bit was that each driver received a 700 - 800 page book three times a year, each printed to show any changes in routes, or rules during the last four months.

98% of each book was identical to the last. But the powers that be could not trust that the drivers would understand if only an update booklet was printed and perhaps the whole book every few years.

This is not a large quantity of books, perhaps 2500. But as a limited printing I imagine the cost per unit was pretty high. Much higher than a yellow pages would be.

I spoke with several layers of management about this in an effort to save money and trees, to no avail. "We've been doing it this way for 50 years, and it works to get the word out, and cover our legal and union requirements."



From: Tony Fisk (Feb 27 2009, at 15:38)

But, folks, the written word (in any medium) is *so* old hat!

Jamais Cascio has an interesting essay on the next stage: text to speech conversion.



From: Tim (but not THE Tim) (Feb 28 2009, at 15:18)

I think that by this time all textbooks and reference manuals should be electronic, and hyper-linked. While the Kindle and it's e-ink siblings are great for a book-like experience, in practice most screens for work for those types of texts. For example, just about any MID (Mobile Internet Device) would work for systems administration manuals, if arranged for smaller screens.


From: Jenna (Mar 02 2009, at 21:04)

I know that we live too long in the city when my ten year old son asked me why we need to recycle to save trees and reduce waste. Coffee table books are great to look at but my friend has a nice flat screen showing a slideshow of beautiful landscapes and photos. They were equally if not more impressive than the coffee table books.


From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Mar 08 2009, at 08:54)


> I can’t read the stuff I have on backup disks and tapes from 2 decades ago;

> without (compatible) hardware, software and electricity,

> all my current digital media is just a bunch of shiny metal and plastic.

Cf. Jamie Zawinski. The answer is to separate the content from the media, and keep all of the content online – forever. The other half of this equation is durable, open data formats like plain-text files, simple (purely semantic) HTML, etc. (Unfortunately, no good solution exists for video content.)


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