Related: David Wilks on books vs. other forms of writing. Are you reading more or fewer books than before? – D.R.

Now that the multimedia iPad is in the news, here’s a timely question. Just how does written word compare to the competition?

We can absorb written words—in e-books, for example—faster than we can absorb spoken words. Written words are also more efficient to transmit. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the related file can be the size of tens or hundreds of thousands of them. The same for the byte count of sound recordings.

Once written, your words stay around for as long as the medium they’re written on (which is a point of contention between paper books and e-books). They represent crystallized knowledge or imagination, and a single copy can influence the thinking of many, many people.

Have you ever thought about how miraculous it is that we (or at least those of us fortunate enough to have learned to touch-type) can rapidly produce millions of words and send them out all over the world just by wiggling our fingers in ways that were trained into us until they are as unconscious as walking or breathing?

Since the Internet was first invented for exchanging e-mail, you could say that the written word was the Internet’s first “killer app”. Ever since then, the amount of text e-mail, netnews, relay chat, gopher, veronica, wais, ftp, and web traffic has dwarfed in quantity, if not in bandwidth, the johnny-come-lately audio and video transfers.

The written word allows us to engage in a kind of dialogue with the books we read. Books are a one-to-one-at-a-time communication medium, with the words flowing from the author to us. We then turn around and review or discuss them with our friends, a one-to-several medium.

The Internet makes everything faster, of course. E-books bring the books to us faster and more conveniently than printed books–and we discuss them on the net, a one-to-many communication from us to the public in general. And it is possible one member of those public might be the author.

So why is it that the number of people reading for recreation is apparently declining? Are people just bored with books, or mesmerized by fancy computer games? Do they prefer to spend the extra time to get their news through audiovisual means?

It’s a good question—as is the question of whether e-book devices can bring them back into the fold. If the gee-whiz factor of e-book devices and apps gets people reading again, that will be great.

But what if it doesn’t? Is the written word going to go the way of cuneiform?

It is doubtful that the written word will ever die out, even if books go by the wayside. (After all, it didn’t die when we stopped using scrolls.) Video games and gizmos will always need instruction books, and the written word is simply the most efficient way of communicating many concepts (despite what some dystopian SF writers have imagined).

Its delivery may take on forms we can barely even imagine now, however.

(Image borrowed from “Things Locked in Drawers…”)


  1. Special attributes of e-books include mobility and mobility related reference. This includes mobility of access to collections and mobility of reading opportunities and connectivity. But is book reading optimized or even encouraged by such mobility? This remains to be revealed since other reference opportunities are offered by mobile devices. These include delivery of voice, video and a variety of text-diminished formats.

    The efficiency of written transmission is admirable but will increased physical mobility and mobility of access assure e-book popularization? Many book refinements are not yet fully conveyed from legacy to e format. E-book costs, including those of sustainable storage and device delivery are volatile and unknown. The relative persistence of paper and e-books is not really “a point of contention” from a perspective of reliable re-access over the long term.

    The recent surge of delivery devices may field-test the whole concept of the e-book. Rather than an indicator of popularity of screen over print book delivery, the device churn could also confirm a limit of screen book delivery. My own view is that we will soon arrive at a sustainable, palpable interdependence of print and screen delivery of the book format.

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