Books age, like us

In My 6,128 Favorite Books Joe Queenan writes:

Books as physical objects matter to me, because they evoke the past. A Métro ticket falls out of a book I bought 40 years ago, and I am transported back to the Rue Saint-Jacques on Sept. 12, 1972, where I am waiting for someone named Annie LeCombe. A telephone message from a friend who died too young falls out of a book, and I find myself back in the Chateau Marmont on a balmy September day in 1995. A note I scribbled to myself in “Homage to Catalonia” in 1973 when I was in Granada reminds me to learn Spanish, which I have not yet done, and to go back to Granada.

None of this will work with a Kindle. People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel. Think it through, bozos.

The world is changing, but I am not changing with it. There is no e-reader or Kindle in my future. My philosophy is simple: Certain things are perfect the way they are. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.

Ben Novak wrote this in an email to me a few years ago:

…just having them evokes the experience of reading or studying them. The pages are yellowing, as I am, but the experience of touching them with my hands and eyes is still vivid. They each bear part of my soul on their pages. Their words etched in ink on fading paper are etched on my fading mind as well.

Retronaut’s slogan? “The past is a foreign country. This is your passport.” Physicals books are a territory all to themselves, and one whose secrets aren’t easy to translate in the context of electronic culture.

Charles Carroll

On the flight to San Francisco last week I started reading American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll by Bradley J. Birzer. The life of the Carroll family is facinating to me, not only because Charles was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, but also more broadly because of the life he was prepared for by his father, even in the face of a cultural and legal environment that prohibited their participation in the public square:

In 1757, Charles Carroll of Annapolis finally married his common-law wife, Elizabeth Brooke, officially named Charles his son, and declared them both beneficiaries in his will. No record explains fully the reasons for this otherwise devout Roman Catholic to live with a woman for years without making her his legal wife or declaring their son his heir, keeping him a bastard. Almost certainly, Charles Carroll the elder hoped to avoid penalties as detailed—though rarely enforced—by the anti-Catholic statutes of the Province of Maryland. The Maryland Assembly began passing anti-Catholic laws in earnest immediately following a Protestant coup in the province in 1689. Undoing the Act of Toleration of 1649 and its reaffirmation and restoration in 1658 (perhaps the most liberal laws in the colonies), on November 22, 1689, the assembly forbade Roman Catholic participation in military or civil matters. Three years later, the assembly disbarred all Roman Catholics. In 1704, the assembly legally closed the Church of St. Mary’s, the original Catholic chapel in the province. Additionally, over the next decades, the assembly taxed Irish Catholics more heavily than Protestants, demanded antipapist oaths from office holders, and heavily regulated the education of Catholic children.

Toleration ebbs and flows.

The best books

Jennifer Maloney writes on the “rise of phone reading,” where publishers are seeing more readers engaging books through their phones and are actually seeing a decrease in readership from the iPad and Kindle population.

Specifically: 54% of digital buyers are using their phone to read at least some of the time, and 14% are reading primarily through their phones. Tablet reading declined from 44% to 41% of readers, and Kindle reading dropped massively from 50% to 32% of readers.

This is credited more or less to the increase in iPhone 6 and 6 Plus screen sizes, and backed up by this insight:

“The best device to read on is the one you have with you,” said Willem Van Lancker, co-founder and chief product officer of the subscription-book service Oyster. “It requires no planning. My bookshelf at home isn’t any good to me when I’m at the park.”

When I was in London for the Olympics a few years ago I read my first few books on my iPhone 4 on the hour or so ride from my hotel to central London every morning. That screen size was definitely not ideal, but it was great being able to enjoy a book without being stuck carrying it around the rest of the day. I’ve been a phone reader since then, and definitely more so since the iPhone 6 came out.

A corollary to Van Lancker’s insight is that the best annotations are not only “the ones you have with you,” but also the ones you can instantly search.

I think physical libraries in the home have been and will continue to be as much a signaling device as anything else, in the same way a large flat screen mounted in the middle of the home is a signaling device for some families.

Eliminating textbook costs

The recent headline that college textbook prices have increased in price by ~1,000% since 1978 shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention.

When we talk about access and affordability, textbook prices are a small but nonetheless costly slice of the pie. Unfortunately it seems like the depreciatory effects that so much of the digital economy has don’t necessarily extend to textbooks. The major publishers can now regulate access to books through expiring licenses that eliminate the secondary market for used versions. The solution is Open Educational Resources, which Anthony Panichelli gave a great talk on at Penn State last year:

Essentially the concept is to apply open source principles to the curriculum. I believe this should be a priority for deans within the colleges. The percent of required class materials could be tracked as a key data point to inform academic governance as well as institutional access and affordability. For whatever percent of materials that couldn’t go open source for whatever reason, donors could be solicited to establish endowments to provide a certain percentage of materials into perpetuity, becoming a de facto patron of that course. 

Imagine a university president being able to say, “In the College of Liberal Arts our faculty have created a world class open education curriculum for 97% of their courses, and alumni support has enabled us to cover the costs of the remainder. We believe knowledge should be accessible to everyone, so we’ve made this a public resource to ensure students no longer have to pay a fee to encounter some of civilization’s most important knowledge.”

This is a small and subtle cost when looking at the total cost of an education. But for that reason more than any other it’s one we can separate from the herd of other cost centers and tackle.