Friday, November 5, 2021

Books in New York - And are books done?

1938: Reading at the Outdoor Library in Bryant Park (a tradition that survives today)

The New York times has a story -with great pictures- about Reading Around New York. It is really a love letter to books and reading in public with stories that take you away from the hustle and pressure of the city. It's lovely.

But it makes me wonder about what the future is of books. Now I LOVE a physical book. I love being wrapped up in it and taking it anywhere with me. I love finishing a great book. Closing that last page and feeling a relaxing wave of satisfaction (occasionally, but rarely, the opposite). But the tools of printing on a page have changed repeatedly.

Ancient Sumerian printing stones and the result of printing on clay. From about 4,000 years ago.

From stone tablets, to printing systems that imbedded marks into clay, to ancient book making using papyrus to animal skins as the medium and copying as the production means.

Hand copied scrolls used in Jewish and later Muslim communities.

In 1450, Gutenberg "invented*" moveable characters for printing. But the 1800s, steam presses were creating "mass" copies of books. Printing processes improved throughout time to bring down the cots - and therefore expose more people to books. In 1933, the first paperback books were printed, my personal favorite.


The first available E-Reader, The Rocket, was sold in 1997. It has been updated ever since. And the e-reader has begun to replace books in much of the developed world. It has been hailed as the end of books. To date, they have not replaced all gooks, but they have driven some innovation in books.

My issue with electronic books is two fold. On a personal lever, I prefer a physical book. Like I said, I love finishing a book. I love reading a book in the bath, or on vacation by the pool. And while they are getting cheaper, they aren't as cheap as a paperback.

A bigger issue is the permanence of the "electronic book" itself. Standards can change quickly. IBM introduced CPDS format. Xerox introduced Interpress format. HP introduced PCL. Adobe (with Xerox engineers) introduced PostScript. Most of these were actually formatted files for books / documents to interface with one or more printers and be printed (not used for storage).

The first systems to allow printing of more than one electronic language was developed in the early 1990s (I worked on them!).

PDF, the intermediate format that allowed various documents from all document descriptors to be reproduced (both in print and display), originally without changes to the final document, was only introduced to mainstream users in 2001.

2001! That means that means a common storage system has only been in place for 20 years! Does this matter. Yes. This means that any books or documents stored in old XES (Xerox) or DPL from DataMax / Honeywell are probably non accessible. Will PDF files used in Kindle and Nook ever be obsolete? No doubt. Studios used to store things in VHS format or Beta+ formats, but as they have gone obsolete (replaced by electronic formats) reproduction and storage is most effective still in film.

And electronic books (particular the files that hold the "book" contents) will probably be obsolete soon(ish). 

AND when the end of civilization comes, printed books will still be able to be read, while books stored only in electronic format will be lost. But this bad boy will still be around for the future to judge us by...

Yes, the cat was the key to solving the mystery!

* Actually, it appears that a form of movable type was invented about 500 years earlier in China. However it fell out of use, and no actual books remain from this period.

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