Books

I find there’s something about learning from a physical object (with volume, texture, scent) that makes things “click” better in my head; and I doubt I’m an oddity in this respect — the root of this effect may be more biological than preferential: For example, when recalling some piece of information, often I can remember where — within some textbook I read half a decade ago — the subject is explained. And I do mean, a literal, physical “where”: a page, (a thing,) which at all times can be found tucked somewhere within a physical stack of bound paper, which I can touch and feel; I might even remember where I was sitting (or standing, or lying), as I held that particular book, open at that particular page, when I studied the subject, and what it felt like to the touch, and how the lighting in the room fell on the paper; maybe I jotted some note on the margin, maybe I spilled tea on the pages before, giving that “where” its own unique irregular texture and color — all of which my brain will forever associate with that information. Digital can’t do any of that.

In this sense, there is nothing left to improve about the physical book.

On the other hand, if once I open this book I find myself confused, (maybe because the book was written by a guy named named Spivak, who does not like to explain what happens in between those little “=” symbols,) I can’t press on anything and expect it to expand magically and reveal more detail. It’s at this point that I will turn to my laptop, and search for more information, maybe even ask a stranger half a world away, or watch an interactive video. My copy of “Calculus on Manifolds” can’t do any of that.

So even though ebooks do offer some perks, in many ways the printed book remains superior. I think it’s a safe bet that books aren’t going anywhere. Radio did not replace print, TV did not replace radio. (Interactive did not replace passive; print did not replace the spoken word.) Each of these media is better suited for different tasks.

(I also still find that the best way to solve a problem (even a programming problem), is with pen and paper. Physically jotting down an idea beats pressing buttons while staring at an obnoxious, headache-inducing glowing screen any time (which I try to avoid as much as possible, even as a software developer). To me flipping pages still beats searching and clicking — what a dreadful user experience is a digital textbook!)

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