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The Frailties of Print

An electronic book can be more accurate, more powerful, more flexible, more informative, more usable, more timely, more sophisticated, and more adaptable to its user than any number of paper books. Today an author has to first think of the questions, research the answers, and find a way to summarize them in print. With electronic books the user poses the questions--questions perhaps even the author did not think of--the book researches the answers--research perhaps almost as good as the author's own--and the user decides how the information is to be displayed.

And the same observations hold for books on music, politics, painting, craftwork, foreign languages, history, zoology, architecture, geography, design, cooking, hairstyling, self defense, travel, health, environmental studies, or any other subject. These books could increase comprehension, retention, and emotional response without sacrificing convenience, adjustability, repeatability, searchability, generality, and abstractability the way that broadcast television does. And because they are built on top of computers with their great power for simulation they also add interactivity, testability, convertability, and projectability.

These books can combine the best aspects of human visual and auditory presentations, the best aspects of broadcast television, the best aspects of computers, and the best aspects of print. Compared to such books, present books are pitiful.

Of course, not all electronic books will be well written; there will still be poor books and good books--and perhaps in the same proportion. But even the worst electronic book could be better than the best paper book, if only because it may be more easily searched to see if it has anything useful. But, as always, the sharper the tool, the deeper the cut. Because these books are more immediate, they can shape our unconscious more deeply; so bad books could be more dangerous, just as a demagogue's speech is more compelling than the text of the speech.

Reading is work, but before writing there was speech, sounds, and sights. We have had only 5,300 years to get used to writing, but we have had millions of years to hone our audiovisual response. Humans are good at interpreting and relating to audiovisual cues--particularly if they are in control and can stop, replay, or interact with the action at any time. Such books will change the way we think, the way we work, and the way we see ourselves, our artifacts, our governments, and our world. Every business, every industry, every vocation, every profession, every educational institution, and every entertainment group, can use these books to advantage.

Students with books like these are exploring, not reading. Curiosity motivates them to explore and develop intuition. They are not intimidated by premature formalism, nor by the artificial linearity authors are forced to place on a subject just to fit it into the unnatural format of a paper book. The difference between these books and paper books is the difference between behavior and the description of behavior.

Textbooks can move toward this ideal even within the confines of paper. They can try to: involve the student through many questions; deformalize the subject until absolutely necessary through an informal style, cartoons, and many pictures; show links among different parts of the book through continuous and exact page referencing; show links among different parts of the subject through many annotated references; humanize the author, the book, and the subject through many quotes, quips, and jokes; and encourage reader exploration.

next up previous contents
Next: The New Publishing Up: Changes in Education Previous: Other Educational Books
Gregory J. E. Rawlins