⨳ 13 Aug 2021
Books still matter in the digital age. Here are a few recommendations you might find of interest.
I have long been interested in media matters — in what makes a certain format special and best suited to a particular experience or purpose. And having written one book, dozens of magazine articles, countless pieces on the web, and curated several printed editions of digital content, I often think about what printing something does for the thing itself, for the author, and of course, for the reader. Why should anything written be bound in paper, board, and cloth in the twenty-first century? Isn’t it simpler, cheaper, and more useful to let books disappear into byteland? I’m not so sure anymore.
Fifteen years ago, the acquiescence of “dead tree” media to digital conventions seemed not only inevitable, but the right thing. Surely the entire mechanism of getting files into the tangible universe was an unnecessary cost, we all thought, not to mention a blight upon ecology. And as a result, budgets were slashed, materials limited, and projects were canceled. Entire publications met their end. Innumerable jobs were eliminated. Professions were put on the extinction list. Some years later, it all seems hasty and reckless and, honestly, wrong.
Is it clear that a digital book is better for the environment than a printed one? No, it is not. The carbon footprint of a single datacenter powering our digital world exceeds that of some towns. There are more than 500 datacenter in the world today, most of them in the United States. Each one houses thousands of computers and requires an incredible amount of energy to keep them cool. In fact, it’s projected that as much as 13% of the global energy supply will be consumed by the internet in the next ten years. That is an astounding amount. Put simply, no information is free.
Is it true that reading is just as easily done on a screen than on paper? That even the most refined e-ink screen is as gentle on our eyes as an ambiently lit page? That holding a tablet is preferable to a codex bound stack of paper? No, no, and no. Not objectively anyway. When it comes to the ergonomics of a “book,” to each their own. An e-reader may weigh less than a printed book and carry more, but it absolutely will not last as long as one. Of that fact, I have a shelf-full of evidence.
Do the economics of the digital world benefit those who produce its information? What about consumers? The digital transformation of publishing has benefitted a very short list of mega-corporations, consolidated power, created new opportunity for some and dried it up for others. Was it harder to publish a book fifteen years ago? Yes, but perhaps that’s not a bad thing. The word information is neutral in every way — information does not necessarily carry meaning, value, or truth.
So is it true that information can stand on its own, without the dedication (and cost) of researchers, writers, editors, fact-checkers, producers, and designers who ensure that it is not only made accessible to those who need it, but also correct? No, it is not. Some years later, with so many local news publications having disappeared, leaving most local governing bodies unobserved and their actions unreported, it is clear what the impact of an uninformed public is on the integrity of its political systems. We get what we pay for.
In any event, the subject line here is Books. As debated as the idea of the “book” has been in the digital age, our understanding of the facets of the debate has matured. It is all more complicated than we thought. And regardless of which side of that debate you argue, books still have a place in this world.
Put simply, some books should not be, and others should. I say that without reservation, bearing in mind the book I wrote and had published in 2012. As eager as I was to reach that career milestone, and as much as it served me and my publisher, the book itself was unnecessary. I strove for as “evergreen” a book as I could, but nevertheless, a book about interaction design in a digital world has a very short shelf-life. Every single word of it would have been better consigned to HTML. At least then they would have been editable when they needed to be.
I have come to a personal rubric for what merits a book. A printed book is a good container for information if it will remain shelf-worthy a decade later, if its contents are inherently preferable in print, and if it is written for children.
That could be the end of this brief essay. But I actually began writing it purely as background for a few recommendations I wanted to make. Here are a few books that I think are worthy of their physical space in the world. I value them and return to them time and again. And something about them makes them seem even more accessible to me — living as they do on one shelf in my house — than if a copy of each lived on every screen device I had within reach.
I have listed a few here in several categories. There is more than a little overlap among these categories. Skim at your leisure. Hopefully there’s something here for everybody.
It is very hard for a non-fiction book to retain its worth over time. Most non-fiction texts are very much of their moment. The information they contain often loses its value, if not truth, quite rapidly after publication. And as much as I recommend, for instance, The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells (my essay from two weeks ago is really one long endorsement of it), I’m not sure it needed to be in print, other than to make some people some money. In a few years, the information relevant to that book will change. As a contained piece, it has incredible value today, of course, but that would be true had it lived only on a web-page. On the other hand, non-fiction texts that are conceptual, philosophical, historical, or instructional can be of value forever. With that in mind, I considered recommending a few — titles like The Life and Death of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, which is a wonderful text but not entirely resilient to contemporary thought on urban planning, or a personal favorite, The Day the Universe Changed, by James Burke, which is honestly better in its TV form. So I will recommend this:
However, A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander, is a truly classic text. It is one of three books published as a single work by Alexander and others at the Center for Environmental Structure to contain a theory of construction — from its most atomic elements to its ecosystemic nature. Even if you never intend to build a single thing, you will benefit from reading this book because it will make you think differently about how you experience the built world. And as for its properties as a printed object, it approaches perfection. Bound to last, with perfect proportions, you will even enjoy holding this book.
Most design texts do not need to be in print. This is ironic given how much has been written by designers, for designers, on printed matter! But most of it is rather effervescent — it can be delightful to behold but quickly fizzle out of memory and relevance. And that’s just the pictures. The writing is rarely worth the words.
As I looked over a shelf of too many design texts, I wondered, which one stands out to me now? Which would I encourage designers to take another look at right now? The one that kept coming to mind is Massive Change, by Bruce Mau and Jennifer Leonard. Had I written this almost twenty years ago, when it was published, I would have been harshly critical — of its grandiosity, of its posturing, of Bruce Mau’s whole schtick, of the astounding white-man-ness of its collected voices. Today, it’s only on that last point that I remain strictly critical; no text about the future of anything should be as monocultural of mind as this one. That being said, every single thing this book had to say is as relevant today as it was then. About ecology. About supply chain, physical infrastructure, social complexity, political structures. About the systemic nature of design and the desperate need to move from artifact-oriented thinking to something harder to contain, control, and own.
Cookbooks are the sort of instructional non-fiction that, in my view and hands, is always better in print. While the idea of an i-Pad on a stand in your kitchen looks lovely in everyone’s kitchen but your own, or the notion of getting a recipe read to you by your smart speaker is so very Star Trek, a book laying open on your counter is really the best.
I will always recommend that if you only have room for one cookbook, let it be How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman. Though we’ve amassed a collection of very good cookbooks, we use this one all_the_time at our house. Bittman’s approach here is to look at the properties of ingredients and how to best use them, not to bind together a set of instructions for meals. That being said, this is a book also of recipes, and they are all excellent. What I appreciate most about how Bittman does this is that rather than writing a single recipe for muffins, say, with the implication that This is The Way A Muffin Is, he will provide a foundational recipe and many variations according to alternatives and preferences you may have. That is why I always use his “Sweet and Rich” muffin variation on page 250 and why our book almost falls open on that page because of how often I’ve turned back to it.
I can’t resist also recommending Greenfeast: Autumn, Winter, which is a collection of recipes for those seasons by Nigel Slater. It is, without a doubt, the most beautiful and elegantly designed artifact among our food literature. It is, like A Pattern Language, perfect in your hand, beautifully illustrated (by gorgeous photography), impeccably proportioned in its pages layout, and of course, excellently typeset. We also like Sherry, by Talia Baiocchi, which is similar in its beauty, but also an excellent treatise on why sherry is good, lovely in a cocktail, and not just the fuel for your 100-year-old grandmother (it was for mine).
I am a passionate explorer of the fringe. I love to read about the supernatural, the unexplained, the metaphysical, the strange. I am well-versed in many of the weirder thoughts and beliefs about reality and even subscribe to some. So I’m careful with my recommendations here, because it’s difficult to say, hey, this is fascinating without also implying and I believe it and am weird and unsafe now.
A few years ago I mentioned a book called Journey of Souls, by Michael Newton, which is a series of transcripts from hypnotic regression sessions that imply a very different way of thinking about the nature of existence. I wrote that, if true, it’s probably one of the most important things put to print on the human condition in quite some time, and if not, probably one of the best works of science fiction ever!
So I similarly recommend the books of Robert Monroe. You can start with his first of three, Journeys Out of the Body, which recounts his investigations into out-of-body experiences and technology to provoke them. What makes Monroe’s books on this subject stand out from the vast array of wacko literature on the same subject is his thoughtfulness, his rigor, and his utterly unique way of organizing and systematizing his experiences. Again, if true, incomparably important. If not, an incredibly fun sci-fi adventure.
Books for children are not just “picture books,” or “board books.” They are often a person’s first view onto the world outside the arms of the parents who hold them. They are a precious, sacred portal. And they are containers for sensory experience; lessons on language, ethics, and morality; the catalysts of a child’s first understanding of being a self among others. My god they’re important and should never be complicated by the over-stimulation of the screen.
I never refuse our child a book and never will. And so I can think of dozens that I would recommend with a manic level of fervor: You Must Have This Book. Some, classics from my parents’ childhood, others from my own, and even some that are brand new. If you’re a parent, you don’t need my long list of recommendations — you don’t need me to recommend The Listening Walk, Happy Winter, One Morning in Maine, The Tiger Voyage, The Nutshell Library, The Happy Lion, The Little House, every book by the Rockwells, Tiny Perfect Things, Over and Under the Pond, Owl Moon, or the Little Bear books. Though, there you go. But a book that I loved as a child continues to stand out to me, especially today as we inhabit a more crowded, hot, and dangerous world. It’s Isn’t It A Beautiful Meadow, by Wolf Harranth and Winifried Opgenoorth. It’s not just about pollution and how industrial civilization harms the planet — it’s not a blunt, dogmatic ecological tool — it’s really about how the desires of people are at the root of planetary damage. But it doesn’t condemn the desires! It differentiates between them and how we seek to satisfy them in a way that children can understand. It’s a real treasure.
I’m a sci-fi junkie and so of course I had a few recommendations ready to go — the ones I always recommend to sci-fi lovers — things like The Stars My Destination (if you can take a very unlikeable protagonist and some very dated themes); The Listeners, The Sparrow, The Book of Strange New Things (if you like faith vs. religion stories), Earth Abides (if you like post-apocalyptic, rebuilding society stories), etc. etc. etc.…
But when I look at my shelf, and I think about which book(s) I’d grab if I had to flee in the cover of night, or if my house was burning, or if I were heading to a desert island for the rest of my life — If I could only have one or two — they’d be Les Miserables and The Divine Comedy.
I have read Les Miserables several times. I’ve also seen the musical and several of its cinematic adaptations (all of which get worse and worse — Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, my god, no). If you’ve never read the book and have only seen these other media objects of the same name, then you don’t really know the story. It is not a story of a good man, Valjean, the criminal, pursued by a bad one, Javert, the policeman. In the original book, Javert is not the main antagonist. I won’t spoil it for you, but I’ll hint that the comedic relief of nearly every screen interpretation is actually one of literatures great evils in this book, and the primary antagonist. This book is really about the human condition in 19th century France and by way of its characters, presents the fragility of human character when faced with life in the flesh. Every read offers that presentation to me anew. I find a new character attracts and enlightens me. I find a new challenge to my own character.
Similarly, I have read The Divine Comedy as many times, and though I have no need for Dante’s structured afterlife, it is a deeply effective stage on which to present, again, the human condition. Dante was an astute observer and critic of human culture through and through, from the politics of the day to the enduring truths of thinking and feeling biology.
No matter how many times I retread the pages of both of these books, there is always something there for me. And I often think of these books, apart from many other great books I have read, because I sense that there is something more in them — something I haven’t discovered or resolved quite yet. They call to me from the shelves, as any Book that continues to be worth of the space must do.
Listing books is always an act too fraught with self-consciousness — What does this list say about me? Will readers judge me by its contents? — and aggrandizement — is this list Canonical? Complete? Correct? Yes, they will, and no, it is not. It’s just a list, written right now for right now. I can only hope there’s something on it of interest or use to you!