Books and Spatial Memory

This week Seth Godin was extemporizing upon the state of libraries and where we’re going.  This got a lot of play in library land, and rightly so.  I very deeply agree with him on most everything he’s saying here.  Yes, we need to be involved in the act of content creation with people in a meaningful way. We should be the nexus of development that shares our people and their voices with the world.

There was also an article on BoingBoing where he was talking about the nature of books, and their purpose.  Again, I agree with him that eBooks are great for getting an idea out there, and that books themselves may become something akin to souvenirs.  I know that much of the reason why I maintain a personal collection is as a visual aid to the development of my own mind.  But there is something else going on in the use of the physical that the virtual has not been able to emulate successfully, and that is spatial reference.

The Three-Dimensional Nature of Books

When holding a physical book, codex, scroll, what have you.  Your mind is mapping this object.  You develop points of reference within the physical document that you retain when important elements come out at you.  One of the amazing things that we can do is remember within a book where a passage lies.  There is something about the spatial reference within the pages, the shape of the words on the page and the power of the words being conveyed to the reader that create these landmarks.And I’m not even talking about page numbering.  Numbers on pages are almost irrelevant in this context.  It’s things like the thickness of the book between the left and right hands, pages that are dogeared or marked, and how things like illustrations that break text create visual landmarks within a book.eBooks in contrast have little in the way of spatial reference, by their nature they are virtual constructions. They are the information of the book distilled into a multi-platform, personally adjustable format. Attempts have been made to create spatial references within eBooks, using percentages, creating “bookmark” spots, having little visual cues on the home screen showing how many dots you’ve read through in any given book. But, like pagination, none of these carries the same kind of spatial information that is gained from having a physical copy. We are given the general “feel” of flipping through pages in a virtual environment, but unless bookmarked or tabbed you can’t easily flip to a passage in a book without a finding aid like a search engine. The reader requires the mediation of the device to find what he is looking for, and those finding aids are only as good as the folks who develop them.

Multi-Sensory Engagement

Physical books engage our senses of touch, sight, smell, and if you chew the foil on a “Little Golden Book” you get the taste (one which I will personally never forget). Those trigger different parts of the brain, and create wildly different sensations. Different shapes and sizes and feelings are important to us developmentally.  Cover art is colorful and memorable. Looking at the spine of book one can instantly recall its content, if not its name. One of the most persistent reference questions is “I don’t remember the title, but it was about spies and it had a silver color and it was over there…”  Yes, I can usually answer those questions.  I walk this floor daily, and look at the content.  I know the books on the shelves to varying degrees based on the amount of buzz that things have gotten and the frequency with which I see it.

eBooks on the other hand are undifferentiated from each other.  They are just blank text files for the most part, and though eReaders themselves do have physical sensory input, there is no difference in the reading experience between War and Peace and the latest Danielle Steel novel.  Ostensibly they look, feel, smell and taste identical.  There is nothing to make these books special from each other, other than their content.  In the physical world you could differentiate between them from the cover art, the height, thickness, density of text on the page, etc.  In the virtual world everything looks and feels the same.  The content is the only difference.  I think this makes us less discriminating when we select eBooks, but then again that has given rise to successful authors like Amanda Hocking who never would have seen the light of day in print publishing world.

Mapping Collections of Books

Books on a shelf function in our brain in the same exact way as the physical book, especially when well organized. Librarians can zoom into an area they frequently use without having to check a catalog, not because the Dewey numbers say that’s where a book is, but because we have mapped the information content of the space in our minds.  Each shelf is combination of colors, shapes, thicknesses, words, ideas and the organizational method all working in tandem with each other.  It’s not just title and author.  It’s so much more than that.

When dealing with eBooks you’re dealing with a file structure, much like what you have on your desktop.  At this point, few people have massive collections of eBooks, such that they would need to differentiate between collections of them.  So most eReaders only have lists of titles that you’ve amassed in a big long string.  Usually in the reverse order in which you purchased it, or, God help us all, an alphabetical list.  Anyone who works in a shared drive with more than two people knows how quickly this becomes a mountain of useless content.  Just looking at file names tells you nothing about a document.  Especially if you have more than one of the same type of thing sitting on your hard drive.  Similar to searching within an eBook, you will need a finding aid to get to your books, again a mediated experience created by your eReader provider.

Some virtual systems have attempted to recreate the “looking at the” shelf experience, like Shelfari where you have a visual representation of the official cover art for your books.  Again, this just gives us the cover art, not the feel or touch or shape or size.  The fact that Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is shown as the same height as Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive doesn’t convey that Carle’s book is only about 40 pages where Clancy’s is like 500.  Sure you can tell from the cover art that one is a children’s book, but nothing else about it.

Browsing and Serendipity
Another feature that gets lost in the virtual world is serendipity.  While browsing a bookstore or library we wander, aimlessly through the shelves our senses taking in the variety of what’s going on around us.  But what we’re doing is we’re exploring, and very quickly at that, the visual and physical medium before us.  We begin with areas of familiarity and then take in what else may be happening in our surroundings.  We’ll process entire bookcases in a matter of seconds.  Titles we may have heard recently will leap out at us, and the other titles in the environment will start to seep into our subconscious mind.  And as we wander through those rows, we will encounter things that connect with our previous body of knowledge, our lingering interests, the topic we may have frequented as a child but have forgone for more serious matters, and they will draw us back in to explore anew.
The virtual world on the other hand is like browsing a catalog of our most recent purchases.  Amazon has some amazing things in its “people who bought this” algorithm.  Their suggestions are rarely outside of something I wouldn’t normally purchase.  But that’s the problem. Eli Pariser in his new book The Filter Bubble explores how these customized serendipity engines are leading us down a hole into a recursive loop.  We read what we read and this asks us if we want to read more and more of the same thing.  Unless you’re actively diversifying your book selections then you will only see the top sellers (an elite few at that) and those special recommendations for you.  It is an information oubliette.
Pure Information

This is where I feel this social conversation is going.  The eBook is a method for conveying pure information.  Its role is to be that method of data input for the human mind where we can experience something fleeting and move on to the next thing.  Surely we are building data repositories of eBooks that rival mankind’s wildest dreams.  We can do unbelievable amounts of cross-sectional informatics that were unthinkable just a few years ago.  There will come a time, in our lifetimes, when the entirety of written communication is going to be available online.  And It will be the most cacophanous mess anyone has ever seen.  Hell, it already is.  Just try searching for anything in the canon of English Literature. You’ll find at least 20 identical copies with tiny little variables in the text.  I dare you to go look for something that was brought up from the middle ages.  Chaucer, Shakespeare.  Yeah.  There’s a few hundred different copies.  If you’re a philologist it’s a goldmine, but if you’re just an average reader, it’s a dizzying array.
For numerous reasons, many of them enumerated above, I’m not one of those people who feel that the death of the book is imminent.  On the contrary.  I feel that eBooks are an addition to the world that are both remarkable and bland at the same time.  They cannot by their nature function within the human experience in the same way as a printed book.  But that’s okay.  They can deliver the pure content.  But there is a deeper experience with the physical world that they just cannot mimic.  We are creatures who exist in multiple dimensions and our brains are geared to work that way.  Maybe when we have hard light books, we’ll revisit this conversation.

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