Posts Tagged e-books

Moses Maimonides’ iPad

“Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries” at the Jewish Museum, New YorkRecently, I saw an amazing exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City. “Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries,” shows rare Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic manuscripts from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries.

Among the scores of texts on display were the Kennicott Bible (a magnificently illuminated Hebrew bible) and a book handwritten by the great philosopher and theologian Moses Maimonides.

Obviously, these texts were too old and valuable to handle, but luckily the curators at the Jewish Museum had a clever technological solution. Beside each book was an iPad, so visitors could look at every page virtually. It was very cool, and made for a very odd juxtaposition.

It’s harder to get closer to a long dead philosopher than to see a book written in their own unique hand. On the other hand, it’s harder to get farther away from an original text than reading it on a tablet, where code creates the illusion of paper and ink.

Of course, this is all out of necessity: seeing an image of Maimonides’ book is better than not seeing it at all, and few people would even know of Maimonides if his books had never been mass-printed.

Still, it begs a question: What artifacts will the great writers and thinkers of today leave behind? Will the efficiency of typed notes and digital publishing erase the writer’s mark, denying future generations a reminder that great books are a product of human beings?

Digital tools make creating and reading written works much easier than ever, but that doesn’t mean all of the changes it brings will be positive. The printing press made the books on display obsolete, not the Internet, but there’s still a reason why they attract so much attention today.

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Epoch tech

Ford NucleonTechnology has a way of defining the times that create it. That’s why we have so many technological “ages.” Humanity has seen the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and even the Atomic Age. In a way, the current Digital Age is just repeating history. Like those past ages, the Digital Age features one epoch-defining technology (the Internet) that people try to apply to everything. If the past is any indication, that won’t work.

In 1945, the United States dropped two Atomic bombs on Japan, ending World War II and beginning an age of nuclear experimentation. In hindsight, playing around with radioactive materials seems a tad silly, but in the 1950s scientists couldn’t get enough of the stuff.

As with the Internet and stone tools, nuclear reactions quickly outgrew their original use. Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickover quickly figured out that nuclear powered ships would almost never have to be refueled; the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus was launched in 1954. Concurrently, nuclear reactors were seen as a way to provide limitless quantities of cheap electricity.

That’s when things started to get out of hand. Soon, the Air Force was testing airborne reactors for a nuclear-powered bomber. In addition to the obvious safety risks, the reactor and its shielding would have been so heavy that the nuclear bomber would have had trouble taking off. Ford even created a (non-functioning) atomic car, the Nucleon, for the 1958 auto show circuit.

But these were fringe ideas; no one would actually buy a nuclear-powered car. No matter how great a new technology seems, it can’t fit every application. The best example of that is a less-ambitious project: the nuclear cargo ship.

In 1955, President Eisenhower proposed building such a ship as part of his “Atoms for Peace” program, which was meant to showcase peaceful uses of nuclear technology. The NS Savannah seemed like a perfect case: it took the nuclear propulsion technology from Navy warships and applied it to civilian commerce. By the time the Savannah was launched in 1959, the Nautilus had already logged over 60,000 nautical miles on nuclear power, and sailed under the North Pole. Atomic seafaring seemed like a sure bet; like the Nautilus, the Savannah was meant to demonstrate the effectiveness of atomic energy.

NS Savannah cutawayThe keyword is “seemed.” Nuclear power may have worked on an attack submarine, but it was not ideally suited to hauling freight. In fact, the Savannah’s novel system of propulsion upset an ancient precedent in maritime labor. Traditionally, deck officers on merchant ships were paid more than engineering officers. However, on the Savannah, the engineering officers needed extra training to run the ship’s reactors, earning them more pay than the deck officers. The labor dispute ultimately made the ship economically unfeasible.

The cost of running a nuclear ship completely outweighed the Savannah’s positive attributes. She could steam at a heady 24 knots consistently, and only needed to be refueled once every 20 years. Still, the U.S. Maritime Administration determined that it costs $2 million more per year to operate the Savannah than a conventional cargo ship. Nuclear technology was simply too complex for the low-budget world of international shipping. Unlike the Navy, shipping companies only cared about profits, and they didn’t need the Savannah’s speed and fuel economy, not when oil was so cheap.

Today, we risk falling into the same trap. Both private companies and the government think the Internet is the solution to everything. They believe people’s bills, medical records, and shopping will be inherently better in digital form. Digital technology has given the world some amazing things, just as nuclear technology gave the world the Nautilus and the atomic clock. Yet not every problem can be solved with an app, just as not every vehicle can work better with a nuclear reactor.

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Great Bookstore in Peril

If you wish you were reading this on a piece of paper (I wish I was writing this on one), then here is some unfortunate news. For the week of January 11th, the Village Voice compiled a list of “The 100 Most Powerless New Yorkers,” which included the staff of the St. Mark’s Bookshop.

According to the Voice, the “staff’s jobs are on the line if either of the seemingly inevitable occur: the continued rise of e-books and the fury of Cooper [Union] students at the possibility of having to pay tuition.”

St. Mark’s rents its space from Cooper Union, which gave it a rent reduction reprieve. The highly selective college has traditionally admitted students for free, and it seems unlikely that it would give up one of it’s biggest selling points before raising the bookshop’s rent.

I’m not a fan of e-books; one of the reasons I prefer the printed variety is because it gives places like St. Mark’s a reason to exist. It’s not just a bookstore: it caters to a very specific clientele. You will never find a more complete selection of Emma Goldman texts, or a wider variety of philosophy books. And, especially if e-books take over, you will never be able to rub shoulders with the people who read them. Isn’t it nice to know that you aren’t alone; that other people share your interests?

The avid read will not be able to find the types of books St. Mark’s specializes at Barnes & Noble, and it will be awhile before some of the more esoteric titles get made into e-books. Of course, there’s always Amazon… but who wants to browse for books on socialism without socializing?

St. Mark’s is an unusual bookstore, and for that reason alone it deserves to survive. The Internet is making consumerism much more efficient, but it is also making it boring. Consumerism is the engine that drives the American economy (it’s not like we make anything anymore), and spending all of one’s time buying the same types of items from the same vendors sounds like a form of dystopia.

If the fashion-conscious can have their quirky boutiques, and gastronauts can have bakeries with $5.00 cupcakes, readers deserve to have quirky, physical bookstores. More casual readers may turn to e-books, but those who are more committed to the written word shouldn’t let the unwashed masses drag them down. If you’re in downtown Manhattan, go to St. Mark’s and show your support.

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What would we do without life’s inefficiencies?

I don’t do much. Besides work and errands, the high point of my typical week is usually a visit to the bookstore. I browse the shelves, looking for potential purchases and helping to stimulate the economy.

My life is pretty boring, and it’s about to get more boring thanks to technological progress. If you’ve seen Amazon’s latest kindle ads, you know that the powers that be are marketing electronic books and magazines as the “smart” alternative to print. That mentality could make weekly trips to the bookstore obsolete.

Is that really the best thing for society? Digitization will make purchasing and reading much easier; consumers will be able to save time and gas that would be spent going to the store, and they’ll save money on bookshelves. The paper books and magazines are printed on and the energy used to produce them will also be saved. The tablet really seems like a utopian technology: it allows to humans to conserve Earth’s resources while making their lives easier.

Utopia, however, is always unattainable. Technological efficiency may take away bits of our humanity. In an essay in Wired magazine, Chris Colin decried the omnipresence of ratings online, saying that having to wade through other people’s opinions when buying a product robs people of the chance to decide for themselves. “There’s an essential freedom in being alone with one’s thoughts, oblivious to and unpolluted by anyone else’s,” Colin wrote, “diminish that aloneness and we start to doubt our own perspective.”

The same thing could happen when e-readers put bookstores in our pockets. Shopping at a bookstore is an event; once you’re there, there is no logical action besides browsing. The electronic method removes that reflection time: buying books and magazines becomes yet another time killer, something people do during spare moments  or when they are supposed to be working. No one will have time to decide anything for themselves, so they will have to rely on other people’s opinions.

The Internet allows people to cram more into each day, but when did efficiency become so important? Other than matters of technology, when do human beings do something because it is logically superior to the alternative? If people were completely rational, valuing efficiency above all else, politics would not be the circus it is. Everyone would take public transportation. No one would have a pet. People would choose romantic partners based on their punctuality.

Life’s little inefficiencies are part of the human experience. The people trying to sell you iPads would probably dismiss that statement as sentimental nonsense, but it’s true. Efficiency is important on the job and in Washington, but not when it comes to what are supposed to be leisure activities.

Old forms of technology, from film photography to vinyl records, have coalesced into what New York magazine calls an “analog underground.” Hopefully, print publications won’t be relegated to this form of novelty. I am not a Luddite; every medium has it’s own use (this blog, for instance, could not exist in print). For short bursts of on-demand information, the Internet is king. But if you have the time to read an entire book, why do you need to buy it in one click? American consumers may decide that they can’t live without instant gratification, but my book browsing sessions will be a lot less satisfying from behind a computer screen.

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How to Buy Cheap Books Without the Internet

Thanks to the proliferation of electronic reading devices, the digital media revolution has spread to books. Many people think that, as with music, digitizing reading material will make it cheaper and more accessible. It is also assumed by many that sites like Amazon offer outrageously low prices compared to physical bookstores. While the question of accessibility is an argument best saved for another day, it is now time to bust the myth that books bought online are always cheaper. Here are a few strategies for buying cheap books without using the Internet.

Check out the “Bargain Books” shelf at chain bookstores.

Chain stores like Barnes & Noble or Borders are normally the last place to look for cheap books; they stock only new copies that sell for the cover price. However, these stores usually have racks of discounted books, sometimes up to 70%. These are overstock or books that could not sell at full price, so don’t expect to find last week’s bestseller here. That does not mean you won’t find something good; you never know what will turn up.

Buy Used in Real Life

Unlike with cars, there is almost no downside to buying used books. Yes, some lines may be highlighted, but as long as you can read the print, who cares? Books remain quite functional with age and, just like your car, depreciation makes them worth less and less every year. Amazon introduced many people to the magic of used books, but buying them in person has even more advantages. A book may cost $0.01 online, but you still have to pay $3.99 in shipping. Better deals can be found at a real-life book sale or used bookstore. For example, I recently purchased President Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoirs and Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad at a library book sale for $1.00 each. That’s two books for less than the price it would take to ship one on Amazon.

Visit Your Local Library

In addition to the aforementioned book sales, some libraries also have book exchanges, where you can leave unwanted books and take others home for free. I found a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the free book bin at my local library. And, of course, you can free up a lot of space at home by taking out library books instead of buying them.

Find an Independent Bookstore

The widest selection of cheap books can be found at independent bookstores. These stores can usually be found in large cities, specifically in college neighborhoods. New York’s Strand and Cambridge, MA’s Harvard Book Store are just two examples. These types of stores offer a combination of new and used books, with the potential for bargains throughout. The Strand lists most new books at a ten or twenty percent discount; most of the stock is donated or sold cheaply by publishers who need to get rid of extra books. Thanks to that policy, I was able to pick up Ray Bradbury’s I Sing The Body Electric for $5.00. These stores also stock leftover review copies of new books, which sell at fifty percent off.

Keep an Open Mind

Like other forms of shopping, buying cheap books means making bargains a high priority. If you need to buy a Christmas or birthday present, Barnes & Noble or Amazon may be the least stressful way. But if you’re able to wait a little, you may find the book you are looking for at a library book sale or an offbeat bookstore. Conducting a search this way may even lead you to a great book you have not heard of at a low price you never expected.

Websites like Amazon may be efficient, but buying a book in real life is not necessarily a rip off. After all, much of Amazon’s stock comes from physical bookstores, and visiting them is probably a more pleasant experience than sitting at a computer entering credit card information. It is also important to remember how much shipping costs can drive up the overall cost of a book bought online. E-books may be locked in at $10.00, undercutting most new hardcovers, but that price can easily be exceeded offline, as the examples listed above demonstrate. Online shopping may be the wave of the future, but it is not necessarily the best option when it comes to buying cheap books.

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