Why e-books will never replace real books.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 29 2010 10:12 AM

Bold Prediction

Why e-books will never replace real books.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Because we perceive print and electronic media differently. Because Marshall McLuhan was right about some things.

In case you don't recall one of the more influential thinkers of the late 20th century: McLuhan was an academic media theorist who ended up being called a "high priest of popular culture." He was big enough to be a standing joke on Laugh-In ("Marshall McLuhan, what are you doin'?") to appear in a cameo in Annie Hall, to get interviewed in Playboy. One of the fundamental things McLuhan said was that new media change us and change the world. We see that principle in every kind of technology. When films started to talk, we started to talk in their phrases and cadences. When musical notation was invented, it took music into new dimensions of complexity and length. When computers started to link up on the Internet … You get the idea.

McLuhan declared that the two epochal cultural developments of the last millennium were, first, the invention of movable type in the 15th century, which proliferated data in print and finally took humanity out of its primeval tribal culture (a culture that had already been shaken, millennia earlier, by the invention of writing). Second, the epochal change of the last two centuries was the advent of electric media, starting with the telegraph. From that point on, data started to blanket the globe at close to the speed of light.

Relatively few prophecies pan out, and plenty of McLuhan's haven't. His peaceful, neo-tribal "global village" hasn't worked so well. He predicted the end of politics, parties, and elections. Yeah, right. Still, he was the first to realize the transformation TV wrought on politics. From the pioneering Kennedy/Nixon debates to rampant political advertising and the 24-hour news cycle, TV has become the strongest force in political life. It's long been understood that a prime reason Kennedy beat Nixon for the presidency was that Kennedy looked better on TV. Now a politician's image outstrips his or her ideas—outstrips his or her politics. Which is just what McLuhan predicted: TV is about gut feeling, not reason.

One of McLuhan's central concepts is still intensely relevant in the age of Internet and e-books: his dichotomy of hot and cool media. "A hot medium," he said, "is one that extends one single sense in 'high definition.' " The less audiovisual information we have to fill in ourselves, the hotter the medium. Books and movies are "hot" because they supply a high level of information to the eye. Telephone and TV are "cool" because the telephone gives the ear "a meager amount of information," and a TV screen is less high-def than a movie. The video image, in contrast to film, is constantly being redrawn as we watch it. In the cool medium of TV, our eye and brain have to create the illusion of a complete picture; that process sucks us in, starting at the level of our synapses.

Obviously, high-definition television, which McLuhan foresaw and mused about, complicates the distinction between hot and cool media. But I'd argue that his dichotomy endures. There is a difference in how we perceive things in print and on an electronic screen. Watching TV has an innately mesmerizing effect that goes beyond whatever happens to be on. TV is addictive, druglike, in a way that movies and print aren't. Recall McLuhan's most famous aphorism: "The medium is the message." To a large extent, we respond to any medium as medium, quite apart from the content. I add that language reflects that: We "go to the movies"; we "watch TV"; we "read a book." If you're a book reader, you care more about reading itself than about any particular book.

McLuhan didn't think content was unimportant, but he believed the delivering technology is what ultimately involves and evolves us. "The 'message' of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs." TV changed the world, in ways good and bad. And a computer screen is essentially a TV. Have you noticed the blank absorption on the faces of people watching TV (except, of course, for sports and politics)? It's much the same as people watching a computer screen.

(McLuhan's oracular prophecies about mass media led to his status as a pop-culture guru, which was largely a matter of misunderstanding him. TV is cool! he proclaimed. A generation grooved on that without having any idea what he meant by the word "cool." Likewise the medium is the message. Way cool! TV gets you stoned! Who cares what's on? In his Playboy interview, McLuhan, a voracious consumer of print and a lover of literature, confessed his dismay at the revolution he prophesied: "As I view the reprimitivisation of our culture … I view such upheavals with total personal dislike and dissatisfaction.")

McLuhan saw the first glimmers of the Internet and seemed to sense what was coming. He spoke of "a mosaic world in which space and time are overcome by television, jets, and computers—a simultaneous, 'all-at-once' world in which everything resonates with everything else in a total electrical field." But he may never have imagined the phenomenon of millions of people staring at a screen, not looking at TV shows but reading words on their computers, as you're doing now. That further blurs his cool-hot dichotomy. But I say again: We perceive words on-screen differently than in print. In the process of writing and teaching writing, I engage in regular experiments testing this theory.

Here's how it works, with me and with most writers I know (because I've asked). I've used computers for more than 25 years. I draft prose on-screen, work it over until I can't find much wrong with it, then double-space it and print it out. At that point I discover what's really there, which is ordinarily hazy, bloated, and boring. It looked pretty good on-screen, but it's crap. My first drafts on paper, after what amount to several drafts on computer, look like a battlefield. Here, for example, is a photo of the initial first page printout of this article.

1_123125_122946_2239464_2258246_100625_book_swaffordpageshot

I've taught college writing classes for a long time, and after computers came in, I began to see peculiar stuff on papers that I hadn't seen before: obvious missing commas and apostrophes, when I was sure most of those students knew better. It dawned on me that they were doing all their work on-screen, where it's hard to see punctuation. I began to lecture them about proofing on paper, although, at first, I didn't make much headway. They were unused to dealing with paper until the final draft, and they'd been taught never to make hand corrections on the printout. They edited on-screen and handed in the hard copy without a glance.

Handwriting is OK! I proclaimed. I love to see hand corrections! Then I noticed glitches in student writing that also resulted from editing on-screen: glaring word and phrase redundancies, forgetting to delete revised phrases, strangely awkward passages. I commenced an ongoing sermon: You see differently and in some ways better on paper than on computer. Your best editing is on paper. Try it and see if I'm right.You'll get a better grade. The last got their attention. The students were puzzled and skeptical at first, but the ones who tried it often ended up agreeing with me.

Still, none of this is black and white. For years, after I got a computer I held onto my romantic attachment to writing first drafts by hand on long legal sheets. Then halfway through a book-for-hire I got in deadline trouble and for the sake of time had to start drafting on computer. I discovered, to my chagrin, that drafting first on computer tended to come out better than by hand. Computer drafts were cleaner and crisper. But, after that, I also discovered, paper rules. The final polish, the nuances, the pithy phrases, the tightening of clarity and logic—those mostly come from revising on paper.

Mind, this is not a screed against e-media and their potential. Readers like the links in Slate articles, and so do I. My next book, on Beethoven, is planned on the one hand as a traditional text between covers with analytical endnotes and on the other as what I'm calling a "three-dimensional book." The text will be amplified by the endnotes and further amplified by a Web site, which adds more ideas and information, musical examples in sound and score, a blog, and what have you. In the e-book version, footnotes will become links, either to the Web site or to background content downloaded along with the text.

This kind of e-medium, I suspect, will be the future of history, biography, scholarship. Among other things, it makes possible a book on, say, music that is in theory available to everybody: The text for general readers, links providing instant musical illustrations for nonmusicians, other links adding technical and glossing material for scholars and musicians. The possibilities are dazzling to contemplate. They're cool in every sense of the word.

But e-book Beethoven will of course be a much different experience than the same guy between covers. Garrison Keillor has said, "On the Internet we're all hummingbirds." We flit from place to place, taking a sip here and a sip there. That's swell, but it isn't the way to read Austen *, Yeats, and Joyce. My book on an iPad or whatever will be richer in worthwhile ways, but it will be less absorbing and probably less emotionally compelling. (I'm making another prophecy of my own, that the iPad, a TV screen, will win out over the Kindle and its "e-ink," because the iPad and its clones will be far more flexible.)

So real books and e-books will coexist. That has happened time and again with other new technologies that were prophesied to kill off old ones. Autos didn't wipe out horses. Movies didn't finish theater. TV didn't destroy movies. E-books won't destroy paper and ink. The Internet and e-books may set back print media for a while, and they may claim a larger audience in the end. But a lot of people who care about reading will want the feel, the smell, the warmth, the deeper intellectual, emotional, and spiritual involvement of print.

The über-message Marshall McLuhan proclaimed is another idea of his that stands the test of time. New media change us, not only our ideas and lifestyles but our very nervous systems. "The basic thing to remember about the electric media is that they inexorably transform every sense ratio and thus recondition and restructure all our values and institutions." That's overstated maybe, but there's something to it. We should not be blind to those kinds of changes. "Understanding is half the battle," McLuhan said. To understand media is to get a handle on them, to direct them in better ways, personally and publicly. When a new medium comes on the scene, we have to be aware and beware.

P.S. OK, this is an online piece, so it's got to have links. I didn't do them above because I wanted you to read the article first without distractions. There's been a flurry of articles on this topic lately, a lot of it sparked by Nicholas Carr's passionate defense of print and his new book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. You can read Carr's blog. In the Wall Street Journal, Carr and Clay Shirky have a back-and-forth on "Does the Internet Make You Dumber/Smarter?" Tufts reading researcher Maryanne Wolf talks about her concerns with children and computers here. None of these mentions McLuhan, but he must be chuckling in his grave, because a lot of the ideas, and the research behind them, echo what he said.

All right. Whew! All this reading and writing has strained the old attention span. I'm going to make a cup of coffee and Google myself.

Correction, July 15, 2010: This sentence originally misspelled the name of Jane Austen. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow us  on Twitter.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.