Paper Dies – But Reading Lives: The Richness of Future Web Reading

Title page from the 1543 edition of Vesalius’ De Humani Corporus Fabrica

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed it’s been pretty quiet for the past few days…

On the other hand, the more alert among you will have noticed that “The Book I’m Reading Now” at the top of the blog was Elizabeth Eisenstein’s groundbreaking work, “The Printing Press As An Agent Of Change”. It’s a magnificent analysis. But it’s a huge reading task – well over 700 pages, very dense. It’s not a casual read; you do have to work at it.

I first read it about ten years ago, while I was doing the intensive research work for The Magic of Reading, but it seemed like a good idea to read it again. The first time, I was more concerned about reading issues per se, but this time it struck me that I’d watched ten years of Internet development since then – and taken part in eBook, eMagazine, eNewspaper and Web development myself.

This is why I like to read books more than once. The book you read is never exactly the same as the author wrote. Because the “real” book goes on inside your head, you always bring your own life experiences, perceptions and state of mind to it. And those are constantly changing – which means you never read the same book twice.

It’s also a good reason to ignore the critics’ view of any book, movie, piece of music or art. Their background is very different to mine – or yours…

There was another good reason for re-reading Eisenstein. A recent blog post by Clay Shirky talked about “thinking the unthinkable”, predicting that the death of newspapers is now certain, although no-one yet knows what will replace them. Shirky referred to Eisenstein, pointing out that the first result of Gutenberg’s technology was a fair amount of chaos, and no-one could have predicted exactly how things would turn out.

Well, it was very interesting. I found myself reading Eisenstein in a very different and much richer way than before. Here’s an example. One of the most influential early printed books was Vesalius’ De Humani Corporus Fabrica, a textbook on human anatomy.

I kept coming across references to it in the text. So much so that I really wanted to take a look at it for myself. In pre-Web days, that would have been a task. But I found a link to a beautiful Flash-based version created by Northwestern University in Illinois, complete with a high-resolution picture of the title page – a great piece of art in itself. Check out the pickpocket being caught in the act in the bottom right of the picture – and the coat-of-arms with the three weasels (Vesalius’ hometown was Wesel in Germany). Jokes that still work after almost five centuries…

When I came across references to logarithms – invented by John Napier, a fellow-Scot (but with a better grasp of mathematics than me) – I could go on to Wikipedia and find out more.

John Napier (1550-1617)

I kept doing the same thing, over and over again. Come across a reference, put down the book, go to my computer, do a Web search (I do like Bing, BTW, that’s become my default search engine), find some good links, spend some time exploring them. I could sometimes spend an hour or more on the background reading before going back to the book.

In other words, my printed book became an interactive multimedia experience which was far bigger and richer than the original. It took me a lot longer to read – but it made the book come to life, and I learned a lot more.

This raises some interesting questions. For instance, I would have liked to have had Eisenstein as an eBook on my Kindle. It’s such a heavy, awkward monster to handle – especially when reading in bed.

However, on Kindle as it is today, that would have made for a much poorer experience – no Web browsing for links… And I’d have hated to see the mess that Kindle’s small screen and poor graphics would have made of the title page of De Fabrica…

I would have liked both: A Kindle version of Eisenstein for portable reading, AND my great MacBook Pro laptop (running Vista) for Web searching and references.

I came across a blog post the other day by someone who had recently read Eisenstein and said it didn’t really get interesting until after the first couple of hundred pages.

He must have been reading with his eyes (or mind) closed. Here was this woman, Elizabeth Eisenstein, single-handedly taking on most of the Renaissance historians, art historians, theological historians etc. of the past couple of hundred years – and eviscerating them. I kept seeing pictures of Joan of Arc in my mind (almost the right period). This is one brave, tough lady, who by herself changed the perception of the impact of printing on the world.

As I said, don’t expect an easy ride – it’s hard work. But if you stick with it, hopefully like me you’ll end up awestruck. Read the combined volumes 1 and 2 – it’s available (but a pricey $61.20) on Amazon in my Recommended Books widget.

BTW, for the past couple of months I’ve been running FireFox as my default browser. Since I run it on Windows, I get ClearType. And it really is very good. I prefer it to Internet Explorer for one main reason – I can “skin” Firefox so the browser chrome is less intrusive on the eyes. I’m using Anycolor, and the dark gray menus, address bar etc are a lot better. Someone also quietly fixed the bug I complained about a few weeks ago. When you put FF into FullScreen view, the bottom of the screen used to leave uncleaned garbage pixels at the bottom – some kind of repaint bug. Anyway, it’s gone now, and FF behaves really well going into and out of FullScreen.

Internet Explorer’s a great browser. But it seems to me that the team I left really has its work cut out if they intend to recover lost market share. If I was a FireFox user, I could see no good reason to switch back to IE – especially if I’d installed Firefox 3.5. And it seems readers of this blog are voting with their feet in much that way – 48.1% of them are Firefox users, with IE users totalling 26.96%. If those figures start to be repeated across the Web, then IE is in deep trouble…


16 thoughts on “Paper Dies – But Reading Lives: The Richness of Future Web Reading

  1. Cookie

    I'm a Firefox user since several years back. Have been keeping IE as secondary browser for a few tasks I have to perform in parallel but since I switched to Vista and IE 8.*, IE crashes randomly during use and EVERY time I CLOSE the browser, and I have found no solution to it. It got so annoying that I now keep Chrome as my secondary. IE is dead to me. D-E-D. Dead. ;D

  2. Bill Hill

    I was having the same kind of problem; a browser hang would also hang Vista – no way out but to switch off power.However, I found it happened both in IE8 and Firefox. It got so bad at one stage I seriously considered just staying in Mac OSX – and that means it was really bad!Interestingly enough, I never hit this problem at all when my installation was fresh. It's something that may have been created by an update, either of the browser or Vista – maybe even something else.What's annoying now is that I usually have to power off two or three times to get Vista to restart. Thankfully it happens a lot less often since I upgraded to FF3.5, but it's still there. Although I haven't been formally gathering data, it seems to happen most often when the laptop's been woken from sleep.That's been one thing I've loved about this Mac. Any Windows laptop I ever had wouldn't sleep at all after the first few weeks.I thought these issues might be because I was running Vista on a Mac using BootCamp. But maybe not…

  3. Owen

    I'm with you — I love being able to enhance my reading experience by looking things up on my computer. I have to wonder if the future of reading might be a tablet-like device that incorporates a technology like the one Pixel Qi is developing (at the flip of a switch, you can go from an e-ink-like, high-contrast display to a full-color LCD screen). What if flipping that switch could also take you right to your web browser to look something up? I'd definitely buy something like that, if it wasn't too expensive. I'm a twentysomething who should probably be an early adopter of ebook stuff, but standalone e-readers are too expensive for me, and my eyes get too tired reading on my phone's small (and backlit) screen. If I'm going to make an investment in a new device, I want it to do everything. OK, it doesn't necessarily have to be a phone, but everything ELSE would be nice (email, full web browser, desktop apps like MS Office, etc.).

  4. Bill Hill

    @ Owen:Backlighting isn't necessarily a problem, unless your backlight is too bright for the ambient light level.For instance. I read on my Windows Mobile phone (I know, I've been meaning to replace it with a iPhone but that would mean changing my plan which I share with my son yah de yah..).Anyway, I find I need the backlight up full when using the phone in daylight. But when I'm reading in bed at night with the light off, I might have the backlight at only one-third of its full brightness, otherwise it does get wearing.

  5. Richard Fink

    Re: Book to screen, book to screen, ad infinitum…My wife's in an online school program, we share an office and she does the book to screen thing all day long.One screen is insufficient for a complete learning environment.There needs to be a minimum of two, and they need to interconnect.Two-display set-ups are nothing new, but I envision one of the screens being book-like, a hand-held touchscreen of some sort. A tablet.Re: Internet ExplorerYou would know better than me, Bill, but lately I get the feeling MSFT is perfectly willing to continue to lose market share on IE.I almost get the feeling they look upon IE as a drag. What was once a source of competitive advantage is now nothing but a pain in the backside. Just the vibe I'm getting. Could be very wrong. Certainly, the IE team doesn't feel this way. They seem pretty gung ho.The only remedy I can conceive is the development of a second, more innovative version of IE that can coexist side-by-side with the IE that comes with the OS.But then, maybe it would be greeted with a barnd-new anti-trust case.Damned if they do, damned if they don't.

  6. Bill Hill

    I have done some work on systems. I can't go into detail because of confidentiality.However, I have spoken publicly about my work on human visual perception and how it relates to information flow. That would be a good topic for a future blog.On browsers:I think the idea of an operating system that comes without a browser is crazy these days; the Web has become so much a part of our lives over the past decade-and-a-half.Apple obviously feels the same way – otherwise why create Safari?I have no axe to grind in saying this, since I'm no longer with Microsoft.The European Commission might disagree with me – but then I think those folks crossed the border into CrazyWorld some time ago.Did you see the story a week or two ago in which Neelie Kroes was quoted suggesting the next stage in Euromadness – a tax on free software, because it competed unfairly with software from European companies who had to pay their employees?I believe Operating Systems need to ship with a browser. But it should be easy for people to download an alternative if they wish. If the alternative is better, more people will gravitate towards it.That's in effect what has happened. FireFox has been able to gain market share quite nicely.What really seems to be going on here is European protectionism. It's Comic Opera 🙂

  7. bowerbird

    owen said:> OK, it doesn't necessarily > have to be a phone, but > everything ELSE > would be nice > (email, full web browser, > desktop apps like MS Office, etc.).um, well, owen, it really _does_have to be a phone, becausea phone is the only device thatpeople _will_ carry, for sure, andmost people don't want to carrya second device, no matter what.but since we'd look kinda funnyholding a clipboard form-factorup to our ears, we can assumethe machine will have bluetooth,so we can stick a plug in our ear.-bowerbird

  8. Bill Hill

    I agree with bowerbird; it's a communicator. Look at how iPhone combines your music on the go and your phone, and is also a reader.There might be different form-factors – pocket-sized and clipboard-sized. But they should both be phones.

  9. dan

    Billit is extremely URGENT that you email me at danbloom AT gmail DOT COM asap as I have major NEWS to tell you re thishttp://zippy1300.blogspot.comreadme, emailme. dan bloom in Taiwani coined SCREENING for reading on screens. see alex beam column in Boston Globe of June 19

  10. dan

    URGENTcontact me in Taiwan ASAPdanbloom GMAIL dot comi found you via complete chance while googling physilogoy of reading…i have coined SCREENING To take place of the word READING for reading online on screens. Bili, I am a newspaper man too, like you. Ask me why i did this coinage. ask me why Kevin Kelly is on board with this. Ask me ASAP. this is now my life's work, along other sidelines. danny age 60http://zippy1300.blogspot.comreadme, emailme. dan bloom in Taiwani coined SCREENING for reading on screens. see alex beam column in Boston Globe of June 19

  11. dan

    Bill,thanks for contacting me. Was not that URGENT, please excuse the shout out….SMILE….but this interesting, no?I heard from Christian Vandendorpe in Canada today , he said:''Your suggestion of coining the term "screening" for "reading on screen" is interesting since this activity is vastly different from reading on paper — and moreover from reading a novel. But I am not sure that it will catch [on]. Just as we now talk about a web "page" ….even if this kind of page is very different from a ''page'' of paper."and Marvin Minsky at MIT Media Lab told me today:"I think SCREENING is OK, but not quite specific enough, because that word already has many meanings(e.g., see Perhaps 'screen-reading' would work for the next few years,and then most people will do most reading on screens, and then we'll need a word for 'old-fashioned paper–reading.To me the most important aspect of screen-reading will be our new abilities to quickly search the text, and be able to actually includeall sorts of links and references–instead of simply mentioning them."Kara Swisher at said she does not think we need a new word for the kind of reading we do onscreen. "NO!" she said. I asked her a second time, she still said "No!"Kevin Kelly said "I'd be happy to see screening become a verb [for reading on screens]…"The jury is still out.A reporter in Colorado tells me today:"I guess the word screening for reading on a screen is adequate. But….I am wondering if a more "novel" word might get more attention? Just a thought. I will be thinking."

  12. dan

    Bill,more from top thinker in this field:"Hi DanWays of reading evolved a lot in the last centuries as humans invented new media and had to adjust to the new challenges posed by their environment. Today, scientists and researchers need to read on screen if they want to be able to go through gigabytes of data and advance in their quest for knowledge. Books aren't just any longer adapted to that task.That being said, I still consider that young people should be taught how to read books and novels — either on paper either on a e-paper — since it is a powerful medium for personal insight and psychological growth."So Bill, what's your take. Do we need a new word for reading on screens, do we need a new word for reading on paper, or everything just fine as it is, no need for any new words? YES NO? MAYBE?

  13. dan

    Billas i said, i LOVE your concept of columns on a web page…… i have been looking for a template for ages, yours is great. are there any templates avail for download anywhere, free? and this: is there a way to turn my emails into columnized emails in three or two columns? does any prog or template let me do that. YOU are a genius, sir!

  14. dan

    Bill,A man I met online Mark Coker, of Smashwords, an ebook website, tells me:"I'm teaching an online class Wednesday to about 100 independent publishers, and in my presentation I have a slide about how ebooks will eventually become more popular than print books because screen reading will become more pleasurable than print reading. For many ebook customers today (most of whom are age 40 and up), screen reading is already more pleasurable than print because because of their ability to customize font size."


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