There’s Something About a Book

By | November 4, 2008

Hot on the heels of its $125 million dollar settlement with book publishers over the company’s plan to scan out-of-print books and add them to its online search capability, Google now wants to be the place people go to read. The book-scanning project is being expanded to include in-print books with the links to buy them. Google expects it to go live sometime in 2009. The catch is that the books can only be read on a computer. This puts them into competition with Amazon which also envisions people curling up with their laptop to read the latest from a favored author.

I suppose there are those who will think this is marvelous, and who will enjoy the instant gratification of buying a book online and being able to enjoy it immediately, but I think it really changes the experience of reading and overcomplicates what is really a simple process. Books are totally portable, can be read anywhere there is a reasonable light source, and don’t depend on batteries (unless you read by flashlight). Books can be passed along to friends and family, and when placed in a bookcase are a monument to the curiosity and interests of the reader. Then there is the tactility of a book, the turning of the pages, and yes, the lack of technology required to simply read. Many of us already spend more time than we’d like staring at a computer screen and I question how many will want to do their personal reading –which is often a time of escape from the day-to-day– just a click away from the distractions of emails and the internet.

Some years back Frank Romano famously pointed out that printed books will survive because of the Three Bs: Bedroom, Bathroom and Beach. He wasn’t wrong then and his insight holds true today.

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3 thoughts on “There’s Something About a Book

  1. Bob Raus

    I agree fully with Guy (and Frank Romano) on this. Besides the compelling points Guy makes here, it is difficult to bookmark an electronic book and pick up where you left off. Even if you can quickly jump to the page you left off on, you still need to boot up and load the OS to get to the point where you can access the software application and book file(s).

    My children access homework on the Internet today, but they still have text books for learning and reference. One reason is that not everyone has a PC yet (yes really) and more importantly, a book is ultimately reliable – unlike a PC (or MAC) that can get viruses, have hard disk crashes and basically have any number of techno-fits/failures.

    I can hear some techno-liberals out there building a case where “children wouldn’t have to carry all that weight in backpacks each day – just think of the back problems we can avoid” , and the environmentalists complaining about cutting down ANY trees to print a book eventually. But let’s get real here. Life without books would lead to skyrocketing illiteracy and the (further) decline of American education and economic strength.

    It just goes to show that even Google can get it wrong.

  2. Andy McCourt

    So true. I believe it was the Ohio State University that conducted research into student retention rates of screen-vs-paper based learning. I recall the results showed around 20% lower retention from screen-only information. When you think about it, a ‘Browser’ is called a browser for good reason. You browse, you don’t study that deeply. Below is a very well-articulated list of ‘Ten Fallcies’ about books by Gary Frost (Future of the Book), complete with rebuttals in parenthises – downloaded from the web of course! But then, I knew what to browse for!

    1. There is an analog/digital divide in the technologies of information transmission. (If there is any divide it is between paper and screen based reading.)

    2. There is something distinctive about being “born digital”. (All information is born digital. How it grows up provides the distinction.)

    3. We are experiencing a one-way transition from paper to screen. (Its actually a two-way, not a one-way transition.)

    4. Screen based books can be equivalent to print books. (This assumption overlooks legibility, haptic efficiencies, default persistence and self-authentication attributes of print transmission that are not provided in screen reading.)

    5. The only history is the future. (Every revolutionary functionality of the book awaits rediscovery out of the past.)

    6. The print book is at best an accessory of screen reading. (Screen reading and digital connectivity is an accessory, or bibliographic utility, of the print book.)

    7. We can dismiss the functionality of the physical book because the attributes of screen reading are overwhelming. (Dismiss the attributes of the physical book and you also dismiss the functionality of sustained reading. The constraints of the physical book are instructional efficiencies that the nurture of reading skills of all kinds.)

    8. Screen based delivery of text is self-indexing and searchable. (Print, unlike screen text, is self-authenticating. Print text is immutable, content encompassed and a reliable witness, all opposite of screen characteristics. Touch screen voting, census automation and many other automated tabulations from traffic control to genetic modification confirm the importance of authentication.)

    9. Change is speeding up, leaving the print book behind. (The digital technologies will also engender a Renaissance of print. Paradigm change occurred in the 19th century with the advents of instant telecommunication, electrical power, digital encoding, keyboard interface and photo imaging. Since then change has been slowing down)

    10. Print reading will die off with aging readers. (Youthful readers are perennially attracted to audio and visual reading while mature readers perennially assimilate sustained print reading.)

    I’m not sure I agree with the last rebuttal – I have two teenagers who absolutely devour books and magazines, and manage some quality browsing and social network time too.

  3. George Alexander

    I find myself agreeing with many of the arguments above, but not with the premise that triggered the initial post. First, let me say that I love printed books, and I agree that there are problems with reading on a computer. The Amazon Kindle and the Sony e-readers are a big improvement, but still limited (and much too expensive for most of us).

    But let’s not be too hasty about deciding that Google has “gotten it wrong” before looking more carefully at what Google is actually doing. While it is true that Google Book Search provides access to downloadable versions of out-of-copyright books, I doubt that large numbers of people will start downloading old books anytime soon.

    I think the bigger impact of the program will be in helping people get hold of actual physical books that are still protected by copyright. The publishers involved in Google’s “partner program” can decide how much of the text of their books they want Google to make available to a given user (typically 20%, although in principle they can choose to release up to 100% of the text). If you make a Google search that results in a hit for a book, Google provides a “Buy this book” button that leads users to the publisher’s web site and to other outlets (such as where a purchase of a physical book can be made. There may also be a “Borrow this book” button that guides the user to a participating library.

    Information about the program is here:

    I think I’m like Guy, Bob, and Andy: I prefer to buy or borrow a printed book, not download a text file. But I still expect Google Book Search to be very helpful. Through my searches on, it will alert me to books I didn’t know about, but that I will want to read. I doubt that I will download any of them.

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