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Stab a Book, the Book Won't Die (craigmod.com)
120 points by cmod 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments





This is an excellent article. Much of the discussion about digital vs. dead-tree books is similar to Stallman's "Right to Read" essay [1], which was published 22 years ago in 1997. As a graduate teaching assistant who has taught several introductory physics courses in an American university, I've noticed that book publishers like Pearson and MacMillan have been pushing students to buy/subscribe digital versions of their textbooks. Professors also increasingly assign homeworks online rather than make students do it on paper. This is really sad because it's really difficult to learn physics without actually doing pen-and-paper calculations. As an example, in a particular homework on vector addition, students were asked to draw the resultant vectors on some poorly-written JS based web notebook, and the students spent more time getting the thing to work instead of learning vector addition.

I can also understand why publishers push for digital subscriptions. Introductory physics textbooks have hardly changed in the past 30-40 years (I would even say they were less distracting and had better problems 30 years ago than now), and it should be obvious for the execs at Pearson and MacMillan that their business model is not going to survive unless they introduce subscription based textbooks. You really don't need anything more than an old (SI-units based) copy of Halliday & Resnick to learn introductory physics.

[1] https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/right-to-read.en.html


> Professors also increasingly assign homeworks online rather than make students do it on paper.

I saw this begin to get popular towards the end of my undergraduate studies. I fought against it tooth-and-nail, because all of a sudden students are required to pay a third-party in order to turn in their homework. Why in the fuck do I have to pay a publisher to submit homework to my professor?


> Why in the fuck do I have to pay a publisher to submit homework to my professor?

The argument is that it makes it easier for the professors/teachers to grade homework when they're submitted electronically. Of course, that's a stupid argument since part of a professor's job is teaching students, and that inevitably involves grading things. Few professors would be convinced by such an argument though.


> The argument is that it makes it easier for the professors/teachers to grade homework...

The entire world is always looking for easier and more efficient methods of doing work. I don't think that's an invalid argument at all. It's the professor's job, yes - and why can't they seek out "better" methods of doing their jobs? (I use quotes to suggest that 'better' is subjective.)

Is there an argument against these tools that says they're ineffective? That says they make professors less effective? Maybe, but that's not the same as "...makes it easier ... is a stupid argument..."


This is a place where free software and OER (openly-licensed educational resources) could really make a difference.

In my experience the online assessment solutions offered by most commercial publishers are horrible, while open source solutions like WeBWorK http://webwork.maa.org/wiki/Get_WeBWorK and MyOpenMath https://www.myopenmath.com/index.php are not bad and have been around for many years.

Yes they are not as "shiny" as the commercial offerings, but I'd trust them much more for actual learning/practice/quizzing than the mainstream publisher crap.


> Why [...] do I have to pay a publisher to submit homework [...]?

Indeed this is ridiculous. This should be part of your university tuition, whether they self-host or outsource, students shouldn't be paying beyond tuition to get their homework submitted.


Halliday and Resnik is what I used in High school, and when I went to college I disliked the intro text they used so much I bought my own ancient copy of H&R to work with

Indeed, I would say most "modern" introductory physics textbooks (including newer editions of old texts like Halliday and Resnick or Sears and Zemansky) are terrible. Of course, the quality of printing, graphics, etc. have improved, but I don't think students ought to pay $300 for just that.

RMS has even underestimated a few things:

> Ten percent of those fees went to the researchers who wrote the papers

Do researchers get anything from journal subscription fees? AFAIK they even have to pay to get an article published.

> Dan resolved the dilemma by doing something even more unthinkable—he lent her the computer, and told her his password. This way, if Lissa read his books, Central Licensing would think he was reading them.

This is definitely missing some biometry, like constantly doing face recognition with a builtin camera to ensure that the user is indeed the right one.


> Make note: Design and contract parameters go hand in hand. When the front page is the only entry point, only a single page of the publication requires hyperbole to convert passers-by to readers. Online, every article becomes a potential entry point. And so there is an incentive for pervasive hyperbole in order to “convert” eyeballs in service to ads and the consumption of more attention.

Good point.


I love the immediacy of buying an e-book and reading it seconds later. I also love that I can carry multiple books on my phone and Paperwhite in my bag. But now, after a few years of buying and reading e-books, I'm sad to see empty spaces on my bookshelf where my previously-read-books should be displayed. I _really_ wish that publishers would let me buy the paper version and upsell me the digital for $2 more. (or Vice versa). I'd do that all day long. But I don't think that's gonna happen. I can't be alone in this. Maybe I just need to switch back to paper books. That's the most obvious answer, but it's also the least convenient. Does anyone else here solve this in a clever way?

I "solved" this problem for myself by buying paper books and then pirating an electronic version. Of course, this won't be agreeable to everyone, but it works for me. It supports the author all the same, and only Amazon takes a hit. But I would definitely switch if they started selling bundles.

You wind up with a superior product in this case as well. A physical artifact that can be displayed or loaned, and a DRM-free digital copy that can be read conveniently on any platform.

I've had the same exact thought. I love paper books: the aesthetics (the non-empty spaces on the bookshelf that you mention), the smell (I might be weird), the natural ability to make notes, proper typography, etc. But I do miss my Paperwhite when I am travelling, or have to wait somewhere for 15 minutes. I am also anxious that I'll have to move soon, and my bookshelf will definitely not make that any easier. A free (or next to free) electronic version when you buy a physical book would make so much sense. An audio version would make even more sense, but that's definitely too much to ask for given the prices of audio books. I do wonder if they've done the math and decided not to do that because enough people are ready to pay for multiple modalities.

Oh nothing is better than the smell of a great book. You aren't weird...or I am too?

Not weird

Thank god. I am off to smell some books.

you're not alone in liking the smell of books! many of us join you in this predilection :)

I think I was offered the digital version because I had purchased the "analog" version on amazon (was it for some specific publisher?). I can't find evidence of it though.

Could have been us — we have a "free PDF if you email me proof of purchase for print" policy for all our books[1,2,3]. Currently, I handle this manually via email, but I wish this was more automated somehow (e.g. shopping cart plugged into print-on-demand fulfillment API + digital delivery of eBook in all formats).

[1] https://www.amazon.com/dp/0992001005/noBSmathphys (high school math review, mechanics, and calculus) [2] https://www.amazon.com/dp/0992001021/noBSLA (linear algebra) [3] https://www.amazon.com/dp/099200103X/noBSmath (high school math review)


Interesting observation on "the contract" but I think it's narrow-minded in terms of why books haven't died.

When I hold a paper book, feel the pages, see the ink, it's just a superior experience. They spent money on the ink. Craft went into the model of a book that's been around for a long time. It imparts a sense of importance.

It's easier on the eyes. Writing in the margins is a more educational experience than clicking, highlighting, or saving. It's powerfully personal. Once it's written in ink, Bezos can't change it in real-time before your eyes.

It's a much richer experience.

As a side note, am I the only one who doesn't watch Netflix?

Sometimes I find a show I want to watch that's on Netflix, but then I go stream it elsewhere. Netflix is slow lol.


I agree that paper-medium has a huge advantage. If I had to find a word to describe it, it would be without a doubt Tangibility.

The usual argument, is that, people are just more used to paper, but while that's definitively true, it doesn't do justice to how bad screens are in comparison - for a certain subset of use-cases. Paper is there. It's _very_ easy to interact with, with a _wide_ variety of tools for manipulation.

In relation to Netflix: I've subscribed to Netflix, a year or two ago. I've subscribed to HBO, a couple of months ago. Due to the increasing amount of streaming services, I'm now thinking of reverting back to P2P sharing (torrents) with a proper VPS setup (It's legal on my country of residence). There are several reasons for this - none of those is pricing - which to be fair, is very okay for now - I pay less that 10$/month for both services - I'll probably have to spend more in a personal setup):

- Data freedom - i.e. no way of 1984 disappearing from my library)

- Privacy

- UI/UX-wise stable

- Functionally stable

- An open ecosystem, which means I can hack some tools for it.

I don't find it slow, though.


"If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really."

Then who but academics--or maybe graduate students--can read War and Peace, The Man Without Qualities, In Search of Lost Time (or really, most of its constituent books), Moby Dick, etc.?

And I can imagine being "partial" to calling myself a reader, but "amicable" seems the wrong word.


That statement is just silly: Nobody read Dickens’s novels in a continuous way when they were published weekly...

Those criteria are just pseudo-culturally ego-filled statements.

Like if you do not enjoy Bach then you do not really know classical music...


Novels published serially were typically planned in parallel. Those who read them as they were published would probably have forgotten many details the author relied on them remembering by the time later chapters came out. They most likely still enjoyed the novel, but would have enjoyed it more if the end was read closer in time to the start. Naturally, they can reread earlier chapters to get the full experience. There are presumably exceptions, where the author has no real plan, and the chapters only meaningfully relate to adjacent chapters, but such works are rarely hailed as great novels.

Moby Dick can be read aloud in 24 hours (well, at least experimentally closer to 26 -- we just did it! it's super fun: https://maritime.org/events/mobydick/ ). I've read it (silently) in 12. However, I don't agree with the assertion that reading a novel requires that rapid pace to fully enjoy it, though I've personally found that I'm unable to resume reading a novel on my Kindle the way I am with a physical text.

According to https://www.staples.com/sbd/cre/marketing/technology-researc... I could read War and Peace in a little over 24 hours, and English is my third language. That should be quite doable over a period of 2 weeks.

War and Peace can be read in 90 minutes a day for two weeks. The average American watches three and a half hours of TV each day. Most people do have the time.

It can.

Must it?

People read at different paces in different moods.

Also watching tv is nothing compared to reading a book like W&P.

Let people decide what how and why they enjoy things, that is all I’m saying and my P, I believe.

You can also listen to all the nine symphonies of Beethoven in a day. Does that mean if you don’t then you are not enjoying them?


I definitely understand the assertion that if you take too long to experience some piece of media, it harms the experience of it in a not-insignificant way. At the extreme end, it's certainly possible to put something down so long that you can't just pick it back up again without starting over—probably most people have experienced that. It's reasonable that there is some less-insurmountable but still real harm done to the experience by stretching out reading a novel over too long a time.

But not the want to use their own imagination and brains to visualize the world with which they are reading.

I used to lament my ultra-slow reading pace. Probably because it slowed down my ability to complete homework in school.

But I've since learned to appreciate how much my mind will wander inside the world of a fiction novel that I'm reading. I'll constantly stop to imagine how this place might look, how I might react to what just happened, what I might think of this character if I were witnessing this with my own eyes. It's part of the reading process for me.

Someone reading so intermittently as to not be immersed in the book or gain much from the book just sounds like someone who is trying to finish a book they don't like rather than some sort of "bad reader."


> The best way to guarantee success is by preemptively engineering systems to reduce friction for positive habits, and increase friction for negative ones.

This is good advice for any self behavior change, not just reading. Can you excercise at home? Can you practice programming on your phone?


Isn't all this coming really close to arguing that free will doesn't exist? We are headed for a situation where our moment-to-moment conscious decisions are completely at the whim of whatever "systems" lurk in the background defining every parameter of our experience.

In that world, maybe I will finally admit that the nutters who say we are living in a simulation might actually be onto something.


Like pretty much everything "free will exists" and "free will doesn't exist" are just two extreme perspectives of the same reality.

If we have to subjugate all of our thoughts to your monolithic reality where everything is "really" the same thing, then how is it possible to think at all? It seems to me that by your logic, we are all walking around bullshitting ourselves 24/7. Is that a worldview that any honest human can live by?

> If we have to subjugate all of our thoughts to your monolithic reality where everything is "really" the same thing

This is not what I'm saying. I'm saying that, in many cases, whether something is true or not is really a matter of context and perspective.

Free will, for instance. The universe, including your body and mind, is a giant ball of energy interacting with itself. You are not separate from it, so how can you have a will of your own? Everything you are, everything your mind thinks, is a product of interactions happening in the medium of the greater universe.

In another context, we have complete free will. Someone may tell you what to do and impose penalties for non-compliance, but freedom to choose does not mean freedom from consequences. Various substances or other "external" factors may influence your decision making in one direction or another, but ultimate you are making a decision.

However, neither of these extremes is particularly useful in the context of the topic under discussion.

Context, as they say, is king.


> whether something is true or not is really a matter of context and perspective.

That's a fair point.

I think your two contexts in which to consider free will are interesting. But it is ultimately a dualistic concept. In whatever context we happen to be talking about, either the will is free or it's not. One extreme of your scale takes place at the universal level. The other end takes place firmly within the sphere of the human world which we experience everyday. As you have shown, the question of free will depends on which end of the scale you want to start your argument with.

But that brings up an interesting question: where is the line along that spectrum? And there has to be a line - either the will is free in a given context or it's not. Where do we cross over between free will and unfree will?

I think these systems that supposedly influence our every behavior are situated somewhere in between the two extreme contexts you mentioned; they are not quite elemental forces of the universe, but they are also not quite part of the everyday immediate human experience.


> But it is ultimately a dualistic concept. In whatever context we happen to be talking about, either the will is free or it's not [...] where is the line along that spectrum? And there has to be a line - either the will is free in a given context or it's not.

I disagree. This is a very... I want to empirical... view of things. Everything must be black or white with no grey in between? Lines are drawn by the human mind, which we must always remember is highly biased, limited, and fallible. We should strive to remember that extremes and hard lines are very rarely actually useful.

> I think these systems that supposedly influence our every behavior are situated somewhere in between the two extreme contexts you mentioned; they are not quite elemental forces of the universe, but they are also not quite part of the everyday immediate human experience.

So I think from this we actually agree.


Free will does exist, but it's quite overrated at the moment, IMO. It is a limited resource that runs out, and most of our lives are lived by habit, which you can change a little bit at a time.

Free will exists, but as spiritual masters going back at least to Jesus have observed, the free will can become enslaved.

It is extremely difficult to program without a full keyboard. I don't see how this is comparable to exercising at home.

It is extremely easy to make a one line code change in Bitbucket and submit a pull request from my phone a thousand miles from the office.

Regarding attention monsters, I didn't found mention in the article about the effort required to maintain a certain level of attention (over time). Please point it out if I missed it.

Reading a book and dealing with abstract thinking clearly requires more effort than loosely scrolling Instagram. It costs less and the (lower or higher) gratification is immediate.

On the other side, Instagram and games have a bidirectional interaction. Receiving a like or upvotes, prices and lootboxes make the attention grabber even more grabbing.


My reading-related startup did a study recently and found that — even among our relatively techie users – there is still a strong preference for paper books over ebooks. We were really surprised at the magnitude of this preference, given how tech-savvy the respondents were.

https://medium.com/@BeeLineReader/even-for-ebook-readers-the...


Anecdotal, but I prefer paper because I’m a software engineer. At the end of a day of eye strain, the last thing I want to do is stare at an eye strain inducing screen to read. With so much of day-to-day work force shifting to screen focused jobs I find it not surprising at all. This combined with the fact that I don’t want to support big conglomerates for book sales which makes buying paperback that much easier.

Reading paper is just as eye-straining as a screen. The eye straining part is due to the light of the screen (maybe a bit from blue light) but to the constant focus distance and lower blinking rate

I find paper much, much less straining than computer screens. Even with redshift / flux enabled.

A compromise I’ve made is a giant ereader/digital notebook. No internet browser. No eye strain. And no carrying around 40 lbs of textbooks. That being said, I lately found myself switching back to a pen and scratch pad since the stylus isn’t that good.

I’m a really big fan, even though build quality is sadly lacking.


Okay, great read. But here's my take on it.

Knowledge =/=> Books

Teaching =/=> Understanding

Money =/=> Education

Monetization =/=> Engagement

Wish more people thought about it that way. Especially in the publishing industry.


> The contract a reader enters with The Information is very clear: We pay, they write. Enough of us pay so they can keep writing. They write in a way that provides value via knowledge (ostensibly leading to smarter business decisions or investments on the part of the reader; i.e., extremely clear value proposition), not shock. Their model is not contingent on us looking at their writing from morning until night. Once a day is more than enough. Entry points are limited. It’s a healthy model for all parties.

It's certainly a personal choice, but this is NOT the contract I want with investigative journalism. I want the model to be "I support you however I can, you change the freaking world." IIRC I've seen The Information put quality investigative articles behind a paywall, and I was struck by how inefficient this would lead to change: I can't share this with others, the nuance of the article isn't visible if someone Googles the subject, the punchline may enter the zeitgeist but the nuance will not. I think that's dangerous, and if The Information were instead to suggest a contract "we show ads to everybody, track everybody, clickbait everybody, and therefore you can share this with everybody" I would prefer that instead.

Certainly they're entirely within their rights to NOT want to be in that business. Fully support anyone who does. But the ad-driven bait-driven model does have its uses, and we shouldn't throw it out with the bathwater.


> Stab a Book, the Book Won't Die

True, but they tend to not survive toddlers.


The physicality of a book is something that can't be totally replaced on a kindle or an iPad. I feel the bulk of the push to pure digital is coming from publishers trying to lower costs. Which you can't blame them for that.

I'd much rather read a physical book. Tactile response, dog ears, easier to flip and compare two sections. Just a better experience.

I also haven't read a physical book in a decade due to time and availability. I have gone through hundreds of digital thomes over that same span.


Another plus for physical books I've found is that I can remember where things are easier in a physical book.

Say I'm 200 pages into a math book where something is making use of a lemma that was discussed back around page 30, and I want to go back and refresh my memory of that discussion.

With a physical book, my memory of that lemma will include whether the discussion started on a left side page or a right side page, perhaps even if it was near the top or bottom or middle of the page, what diagrams were nearby, and about how far into the book it was by the difference in feel of the thickness of the stack of pages in my left hand and the stack of pages in my right hand when opened to where the lemma is.

In other words, with a physical book I get a sense of the content as being spread through a 3D space, that my attention moves through as I read, and my memory of the content includes where it is in that 3D space.

It's sort of like a physical book can serve as a kind of self-referential mind palace [1].

With an ebook, I lose the feeling of the information having a location in a 3D space.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method_of_loci


I can't tell if your comment is pro/anti physical books lol.

The physicality of a book is why so many people prefer the form factor of having thousands of books in a single, tiny, lightweight device they can keep in their purse/backpack.

I never again want to own bookshelves of books or have to track down a physical copy of an out-of-print book that I want to read.

Help one of your buddies move houses when they have thousands of books in bookshelves and tell me it's just publishers who have something to gain from e-books. :)

Btw, OP himself in the post even says that his Kindle has allowed him to "convert into a more fervent reader."


Sure, but that just comes down to preference. Some might dream of that "thousand of books" scenario. Doubt they read even half though. Maybe it comes down to being a book collector or not.

Publishers have a weird love/hate thing going on with ebooks. They do want the costs savings (printing, distribution, warehouse, returns). They hate the possibility of lack of control. They hate the idea that ebooks might not expand the market for books, but just cannibalize print sales, making print sales even more costly.

Also, for a variety of technical and business reasons, the common ebook platforms (Kindle, iBooks, etc.) are not so great for complex books. Most of the books sold on kindle are simple genre fiction. Just a few minutes ago I had a conversation with one of our sales guys about whether a particular new book would even be practical for ebook conversion.


That's true but the profit margin grew for publishers. We don't see the same comparative price reduction in electronic books. And this reminds me of what happened with CDs, they were easier to physically produce than tapes or vinyl and yet they went up in price. One good thing is we do have free e-books, thing that was not physically possible with paper books, the production had to be paid by someone at some point. On the other, electronic books are ephemeral, are locked into whatever platform/device and are bound to render useless as time goes by.

How is .epub (basically a plaintext html document) ephemeral?

Not in the sense of epub which is great btw. More ephemeral in the sense that it’s harder to hold onto bits than a phisical book. Take for instance a collection of books that is stored on a storage device that is encrypted when the owner dies. In the case of paper books they might end up re-sold somewhere, at least some might escape the dumpster. I have 15 harddrives of different formats from the last 15 years that I didn’t make the effort of transfering them to newer storage and the more im postponing the harder it gets. Take for example SCSI, IDE and older SATA HDs. I need to invest in convertors at some point. Anyway, you could argue the oppsite, if one is very organized and responsible with their archive of bits, one can have the potential to hold onto everything they ever interacted with in some form or another, but at the same time the ocean of information makes it overwhelming. A paper book on the shelf is there after 100 years in an attic, a basement or a shelf, albeit a bit dusty, but ready to be consumed.

Roughly all ebooks are sold with DRM that shackles you to one platform or another.

XHTML with CSS, actually.

There ain’t no one reading “in search of lost time“ in less than two weeks

And no, reading does not burn calories

This is totally nuts, the whole article


I'm not sure how you can rule out reading burning calories. Our brains burn more calories than the rest of our bodies, and taxing a brain more oughta burn more.

I'm reminded of finding out very recently that professional chess players burn a lot of calories.

Looks like the brain will burn 110cal/pound/day. So an average brain weight of 3lbs means 330cal/day total.

Hard for me to believe this number can increase to 10x that amount if we're to believe chess grandmasters are burning 6000cal/day (let's say 2300cal for the rest of the body, thus 3700cal for the brain). 6000 calories being the figure thrown around if you google it.

Sounds a bit like bullshit to me that a chess player can burn as many calories as a professional cyclist on an all-day race.


Have you ever put your finger on a CPU which has been pegged for a couple of minutes?

I'm sure it does, but even in a coma it burns something like 1200 calories a day. There's seems to be a pretty narrow window between the baseline and maximum.

Unless it's for reference purposes, i think reading is a waste of time. I stopped reading after college after it was no longer mandatory. same for movies and tv. Don't have the time for it but also the information can be stale. This is specially so for making money online. Bill gates' wealth and success and his love of reading are independent events but are often mistakenly assumed to be causal. Reading is just another form of entertainment. it is not going to unlock any magic or hidden doors to success as much as pundits like to extol the virtues of it .



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