Books in A Networked Age

Paper or pixels? A look at books in a networked age

3 min read

Photo of man reading a tablet in an airplane.
Photo: Sony
“Man is the only 150-pound nonlinear servomechanism that can be wholly reproduced by unskilled labor.”

As a fledgling editor, I was very lucky to work with the celebrated author and anthropologist Ashley Montagu. A prolific writer—he wrote more than 60 books and countless essays and reviews—he was also a prodigious collector of books. I loved books too, and as one of his many editors I always found it great fun to visit him at home in Princeton, N.J., to work on a piece. The house was a lovely garden-surrounded rabbit warren with books simply everywhere, the stairs, the cupboards, the tabletops. I’d roam around looking at his old books, new books, the books he was reviewing, the books he was using for research. And whenever I came across one that I had in my own much more modest library I felt a little secret thrill—great minds thinking alike!

Now it’s possible to poke through other people’s libraries and compare them with your own by visiting them online. These so-called virtual bookshelves look like library stacks and allow you to post books with reviews and comments for a self-selected circle of friends to see and discuss. Facebook hosts something called the Visual Bookshelf. When I visited in early June, it was claiming that 2 128 143 people were using the app to put 45 916 425 books into their Facebook profiles. There are plenty of other book-sharing sites—if you Google around you’ll find Shelfari and BookRabbit and LibraryThing, among many others. So somebody is reading books—when they’re not cataloging them!

In this summer reading issue we’ve given you a chance to peruse someone’s library in yet another way—not by visiting him at home but by reading about it in a magazine. In “10 Great Tech Books,” noted technology writer Steven Levy gives us 10 of his personal nonfiction (and three fiction) favorites and tells us why they made his list. I agree with many of his choices, but I can think of others I might have included. What about Edward Tenner’s Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences? Or Katie Hafner’s Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet? Or Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddesson’s Crystal Fire: Birth of the Information Age? Or Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Or anything by Philip K. Dick? And perhaps even Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. I’m sure you’ll have your own quibbles and shoo-ins, and I hope you’ll visit our Web site to share them with us [see /jul08/booklists].

The migration of books from printed to digital formats has brought pleasure and pain to the publishing community. Digital book sales are up, and devices like the Kindle [see our review in this issue, "Re-Kindling a Love of Books"] make it possible for people to carry several books—or a hundred—without a backpack. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos fantasizes about creating the modern equivalent of the Library of Alexandria, with any existing book available in a 60-second download. But others worry about the impact of such an idea on the econom­ics—not to mention the very existence—of book publishing. In the networked book age, what will publishers do when authors and readers can reach each other more or less directly?

But publishers need to recognize that while digitalization and the Web bring challenges, they are also creating new book life-forms, enriched with the immense linked resources of the Internet. And they are getting more people to read and think and talk about reading. The virtual bookshelf communities are proof of that.

As science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her trenchant essay “Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading,” published in this past February’s Harper’s Magazine, books are social vectors. They bind our ideas and our cultures together. Whether these books are composed of glue and paper or pixels and electrons, their importance to our human community will remain intact.

Join the conversation about great tech books here.

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